Since 2014, roughly 125,000 families and 115,000 unaccompanied children from Central America have been apprehended at the Southwest border of the United States, many seeking asylum. But Central American families and children arrested in immigration raids over the past month may have been denied a fair chance at claiming asylum, according to a report released on Wednesday by a coalition of immigration lawyers and nonprofit organizations.
The legal coalition, known as the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, reported 40 cases of women and children arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since the series of immigration raids began in May. The majority of those arrests took place in workplaces, homes, and schools, and the CARA project alleges that federal immigration officials engaged in "aggressive and inappropriate conduct."
The Department of Homeland Security has said that immigration enforcement actions would target Central American migrants who had exhausted their legal options to remain in the United States, but the CARA project's report suggests that in at least 21 of these cases, immigrants have valid asylum claims that have not yet been heard in an immigration court. Moreover, several of those arrested by ICE did not have an outstanding deportation order, according to the group.
Laura Lichter, a Denver-based volunteer for the project and general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said the root of the problem is that the Obama administration has treated the influx of Central American women and children as a matter of illegal immigration rather than a humanitarian crisis.
"The administration knows exactly who they're deporting," Lichter told VICE. "It knows exactly the merits of their cases, and it has chosen to go forward regardless."
In the past decade, gang-related violence has skyrocketed in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The specific causes of violence vary in each country, according to a January report by the Council on Foreign Relations, but each struggles with drug trafficking and ineffective criminal justice systems. As a result of the violence and poor economic conditions, millions of men, women, and children have fled their homes in recent decades.
Supporters of the Central American migrants arriving at the border say they face violence at home that could potentially qualify them for asylum in the United States, and sending them back without hearing their cases could subject them to serious danger.
"Anyone that studies migration will tell you that the least mobile group of people is going to be women with children, especially women with small children," Lichter said. "They don't leave unless things are really, really bad. And, of course, that's exactly who we started seeing showing up at the border in the summer of 2014."
While most immigrants CARA encountered had arrived after January 2014 and had been issued a final order of removal—making them a priority for deportation—their report suggests these immigrants haven't had their fair shake in court. According to the group, many of the detained immigrants never received notices to appear in court and therefore missed court dates that might have changed the outcome of their case. Others received legal bad advice or had no legal counsel, CARA claims.
Sarah Rodriguez, a spokesperson for ICE, said in a statement to VICE that agents routinely use discretion—including humanitarian factors—in considering which cases to pursue for removal, and that immigrants in removal proceedings "are afforded all appropriate due process under the law."
Rodriguez stressed that the agency does not conduct "raids," stating that enforcement actions "are targeted based on investigative leads and conducted in a professional manner."
The document released by the CARA project, however, presents a far more sinister view of the arrests that took place in May and June, sharing the details of ten anonymized cases. (The cases were presented with pseudonyms to protect the immigrants in the event they are deported to their home countries.)
In one case, ICE agents reportedly showed up to the home of "Sara," a 33-year-old mother in Houston, as her eight-year-old son "Giovanni" was boarding a bus to school on the morning of May 19.
"ICE waited until Giovanni got onto the school bus before shouting for him to get off the bus and arresting him," the document states. While schools are listed as "sensitive locations" (areas that immigration agents should avoid when making an arrest) in a 2011 memo from then-ICE director John Morton, school bus stops are not. The CARA project argues that the memo should be updated to include them.
Sara claims she fled domestic abuse in Honduras, and lawyers associated with the CARA project say her case could potentially qualify for asylum based on her claims of gender-related violence.
Several asylum-law experts consulted by VICE said the overarching claims laid out in the report are plausible and, in some cases, common. Michele Pistone, the director of an asylum clinic at Villanova University's law school, works with students on cases involving women and children arriving from Central America and told VICE the report is "very consistent" with her own experiences.
Pistone understands that many people arrested in the latest round of immigration raids had final orders of removal, but also believes some Central American families and children are being denied due process in the nation's immigration courts. "While on paper, these people have been ordered removed, the process behind obtaining the order is probably fraught with problems, which makes me question the legitimacy of the order," she said.
Other experts disagree. Jan Ting, a professor at Temple University's law school, took the perspective of a former government official (he was the assistant commissioner of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service during the presidency of George H. W. Bush). "Nobody gets deported by an immigration judge without an opportunity to make an asylum claim or any other claim they want to make," he told VICE. He agreed that these high-profile immigration raids could be an attempt to discourage potential migrants in Central America—with the election five months away, Ting thinks Democrats fear that another rush of migrants at the border could swing popular support to Donald Trump. "The Obama administration is kind of hellbent to make an example of some of these folks," he said.
The report notes that federal immigration officials appear to have mostly targeted immigrants in four states—Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—where immigration courts have some of the highest rates of asylum denials in the country. In Atlanta's immigration courts, for example, 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in the 2015 fiscal year.
"We believe ICE is focusing on these states because they know these are the states that have horrible judges [and] the access to counsel is very limited," said Mohammad Abdollahi, a spokesperson for RAICES, a San Antonio–based group that provides legal services to immigrants. "They have a better chance, if they focus on these states, of finding people that have removal orders."
The network of nonprofit organizations and pro-bono attorneys in the four aforementioned states has been stretched thin by the number of Central American migrants who are rapidly being processed for deportation, Abdollahi told VICE. His group has been focusing on getting women and children out of immigration detention, but that's only one step to avoiding deportation.
"Once the families are released from detention, that's where the real work begins, which is trying to connect families with attorneys," he said.
Representatives of the CARA project stress that the larger problem is how the Obama administration has responded to the surge in Central American migrants. While the Department of Homeland Security announced in June 2015 that it would stop using family detention as a way to deter future migrants, Laura Lichter says it's still happening.
The message that the US will send migrants back to their home countries "is getting through loud and clear," she said. "But it's also having absolutely no impact."
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