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Now More Than Ever, Obama's Immigration Policies Are Punishing the Persecuted

Instead of devoting resources to rounding up, detaining, and deporting refugees, the United States should ensure those fleeing violence in their home countries have a chance to make their claim for protection.
January 27, 2016, 8:11pm
Immigrant children being held at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas. (Photo by Eric Gay/AP)

This article is part of VICE News' collaboration with the American Justice Summit. Watch the livestream on VICE News on Friday, January 29.

Just before Christmas 2015, news broke that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would begin taking immigrants who had deportation orders into custody in order to immediately remove them from the United States. With no further information, during the first few days of 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began banging on doors across the country, causing ripples of fear throughout immigrant communities.

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At first, many advocates believed that the raids might target immigrants with criminal backgrounds, or those with old deportation orders who had exhausted all of their appeals. There was hope that ICE would spare unaccompanied children and those with pending claims for asylum and other forms of protection. But after a few days, a different story emerged. In one community, ICE attempted to detain a 16-year-old girl from Honduras with no order of deportation and a pending application for protection because she is an unaccompanied child. In another, they picked up a minor from El Salvador who was undocumented but had never even talked to a lawyer about whether he could apply for protection.

Related: Escaping Into Prison: The Battle Over Immigrant Mothers and Children Detained by the US

Today, parents are afraid they might come into contact with ICE at their children's schools. They are not taking their children to the doctor for routine check-ups and vaccinations out of fear of encountering DHS. Breadwinners are not reporting for work. And people of faith are afraid to go to church. The climate of fear that the raids have created is palpable across communities and across the country.

As the raids have continued to unfold, another worrisome trend has appeared. The lines between ICE and local law enforcement has been blurred. In some parts of the country, local police presence increased dramatically at the same time that the ICE raids commenced, and it became difficult to tell whether the officers wearing "police" jackets and banging on doors or demanding identification were local cops or ICE agents. One young man complied with a call to appear at a precinct to offer testimony as a cooperating witness, but when he arrived, ICE was waiting to take him into custody.

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I work at Tahirih Justice Center, where we provide legal and social services to immigrant women and children fleeing violence in their own countries. But 70 percent of them experience violence in the US at the hands of immigrants and non-immigrants alike. We often engage in safety planning with our clients, which can include calling 911 for help. Since the raids began, however, women living in immigrant communities have said that they are too afraid to call 911 for fear that they could be deported.

Apprehending refugees from the Northern Triangle is like arresting someone for jaywalking while she's fleeing a burning building.

One client said that her children's teachers are instructing the class not to open their doors if the police knock. The raids have done significant damage to the already tenuous relationship between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, making immigrants — and all Americans — less safe.

The vast majority of the victims of the raids have been from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — a region plagued by horrific violence called the Northern Triangle — and are here in the United States fleeing soaring rates of murder and gender-based violence in their home countries. With governments that will not protect them, children and families have no choice but to flee in order to save their own lives; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls their migration a refugee crisis of alarming proportions. It appears that the raids are one part of the Obama administration's clumsy plan to deter this particular group of refugees from crossing the US border.

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Another is the resurrection of "family detention," or the placement of Central American refugee mothers with their children in remote, prison-like facilities where they have minimal if any access to legal and health services. Thousands of children — they average 6 years old, and many are infants — and their mothers, the vast majority of whom are seeking asylum and have survived significant mental and physical trauma, have been held in these jails for months on end. The environment is stifling, the conditions inhumane, and the message loud and clear: You are being punished for seeking refuge.

Inside these detention centers, there have been allegations of sexual misconduct by guards, forcible separation of children from mothers, suicide attempts, and stifled hunger strikes. Mothers and children have shown signs of distress such as nightmares, headaches, weight loss, and severe insomnia. All this — in addition to a lack of access to legal counsel — makes it much harder for these families to adequately present their cases for asylum. Despite numerous calls from advocates, pressure from lawmakers, and two federal court orders to cease family detention, the Obama administration is fighting to ensure that it is able to continue this barbaric practice.

Terrorizing traumatized refugees with detention and home raids only exacerbates their anguish. As a colleague remarked, apprehending refugees from the Northern Triangle is like arresting someone for jaywalking while she's fleeing a burning building. Families fleeing these countries are running for their lives, and they will keep doing so until the crisis where they live has been resolved.

Instead of spending resources trying to discourage refugees, we should ensure that every person who approaches our southern border has a chance to obtain legal counsel and make her claim for protection before a judge. Under domestic law and the international laws governing access to protection for refugees, it is incumbent upon the US to do the right thing and spend its resources on welcoming refugee families instead of punishing them.

Archi Pyati is the director of Policy and Programs at Tahirih Justice Center. Follow her on Twitter: @appyati