By LISA LUINENBURG
President Obama responded to reports of a recent influx into the U.S. of over 52,000 undocumented children from Central America by asking Congress for an additional $2 billion to speed up their deportation proceedings. While a law enacted under President George W. Bush classifies these children as refugees, and requires that they be placed with relatives or in long-term housing while their cases are being heard in immigration courts, Obama wants to remove these protections.
Under the new proceedings, these children would have one chance to prove that they have migrated because of a fear of violence or trafficking in their home countries. They would be given a single interview with a Border Patrol agent, immediately after they are apprehended. According to Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that offers legal assistance to migrant children, “Children will arrive traumatized, hungry, unable to speak the language, and yet they will be expected to articulate some fear of return if they’re to be allowed to come in to the U.S. That is grossly unfair and fails to recognize their capacities as children to negotiate these processes.”
“These children will have no access to counsel—nobody to advise them. It takes [Young’s office] hours and even days to understand the proceedings they’re facing, but to do this at the border with no assistance is simply impossible.”
This shift in policy advocated by President Obama would serve to “roll back the due process rights of the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. The United Nations Refugee Agency recently found that 58% of children migrating from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala cited violence in their home countries as one of their key reasons for leaving.
Many of these children are being targeted by organized crime networks and drug lords in their homes. That is not to mention that decades of U.S. military intervention and interference in Central American countries, including the use of U.S.-backed death squads, has caused untold violence and devastating poverty in these countries.
Central American parents who send their children to the United States, hoping they can find a better life, do so out of desperation and at the greatest risk. In order to get to the U.S. border, these children must undertake a journey thousands of miles long, known as El Salto de la Muerte (the Leap of Death). About 400,000 Central American migrants ride a freight train known as La Bestia (the Beast) through Mexico on their way to the border each year, but only 15-20% of those who attempt the journey will succeed.
On the way, these migrants face a myriad of dangers—being apprehended by Mexican immigration agents, falling off the train and being mutilated or killed on the tracks, being kidnapped by drug gangs, being raped, or being robbed. According to a 2012 article by Joseph Sorrentino, 80% of migrants will be assaulted or robbed, and 60% of women will be raped along the way. Between April and September 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported 214 mass kidnappings, involving 11,333 people.
Far from acknowledging this reality, Obama is now asking children who have survived these horrors to prove to an immigration agent their status as a refugee fleeing violence. In a recent letter to Congress, Obama stated that the United States would take “aggressive steps to … deter both adults and children from making this dangerous journey, increase capacity for enforcement and removal proceedings, and quickly return unlawful migrants to their home countries.”
And it’s clear why Obama is so keen to deport these Central American children—they are too young to fit into his plan for a “comprehensive immigration reform,” which includes the legalized exploitation of undocumented workers through the use of Bracero-style guest-worker programs. In fact, the U.S. government is already “employing” thousands of undocumented immigrants trapped in the detention system as they await their deportation.
Last year, 60,000 immigrants worked in this system for an average of 13 cents an hour, saving the government $40 million dollars that they would have had to pay to federal contractors at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. That makes the U.S. government the largest single employer of undocumented workers in the United States. It’s clear where Obama’s priorities lie.
There is no easy solution to this problem. The flow of migrants from Mexico and from Central and South America who are seeking a better life in the U.S. will not stop anytime soon. In the meantime, we must do all we can to defend the immigrants that are already here and push the government to grant an unconditional legalization for all immigrants. At the same time, we must demand—U.S. Hands of Latin America! An Injury to One is an Injury to All!
Photo: Central American children sleep inside U.S. detention center in Texas. Donald E. King / AP