An Exodus in Our Own Backyard

Takver/Flickr

From The New York Times:

by The Editorial Board

The United States often faces global crises that force it to balance incompatible interests. But there is one test, close to home, whose answers are straightforward.

It involves people who have fled the threat of death in Central America and arrived, traumatized and defenseless, at the American border.

They are families and young children, many traveling alone, who have tried to escape Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the hemisphere’s murder capitals. Drug mafias and criminal gangs have driven them out. Their numbers at the Southwestern border rose alarmingly in 2014, fell somewhat last year and are rising again.

President Obama has spoken of them with sympathy. But he and his Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, have done far too little to match words with actions: to build a web of protection here and in the region the migrants fled, Central America’s Northern Triangle. They have compounded that failure by treating the emergency mainly as a border-control problem, to be dealt with through family prisons, an overburdened and unjust immigration court system, and deportation even of those who pose no threat. And they have outsourced an ugly job to Mexico: intercepting migrants at the Guatemalan border, to keep them out of sight and mind.

These migrants are refugees, but persuading a court to let them stay requires legal counsel, and relatively few have lawyers. As recent arrivals, they are among the administration’s highest priorities for deportation. Without papers, without due process, they become victims again in the country they hoped would save their lives.

The administration gives reasons for cracking down: to make a point about the finality of a deportation order, to deter others from attempting the dangerous trip. But these justifications pale against the scale of the emergency in the Northern Triangle.

The results of these policies are exemplified in cases like that of Wildin Acosta, a 19-year-old from Honduras who came over the border, unsuccessfully sought asylum, was ordered deported and was captured in immigration raids in North Carolina last winter. He is one of dozens of young adults who have unjustly lost the special protections given to minors. Many others continue to be detained and deported back into life-threatening danger. 

Mercy is in short supply as the presidential race stokes fear of foreigners and terrorists. The administration’s inaction is not for lack of knowing what to do. Senate Democrats introduced a wide-ranging bill last week to attack the Northern Triangle problem at its roots and to help ensure justice and safety for migrants. It would press Central American governments to restore the rule of law, strengthen institutions and build the economy. It would crack down on smuggling networks, expand refugee resettlement in Mexico and elsewhere, add immigration judges and help provide security, health and education for refugee children in the United States.

In a Congress where Democratic initiatives struggle to get heard, the bill’s odds are slim. That leaves it up to Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson, who will need to do more. On World Refugee Day, June 20, in a naturalization ceremony in Central Park, Mr. Johnson gave the citizenship oath to 19 new Americans who had fled Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. He shook their hands and smiled for photos. He did not mention the Northern Triangle.

Mr. Obama’s plan to shield millions of immigrants from deportation through executive action was rebuffed last month by the Supreme Court. He will thus end his presidency with a dismally lopsided legacy on immigration: one program protecting 730,000 young people that has been left stranded by the failure of immigration reform, balanced against a record 2.4 million deportations. It’s too late to change this equation, but in the time left to him, he can try to restore credibility to the claim that the United States is still a beacon of hope by not sending homeless outcasts back into war and violence.