Obama slammed for turning back on Central American immigrants

Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally, Washington, D.C. (Credit: takomablbelot/flickr)

President Barack Obama has come under criticism for the government’s sudden spate of raids across the U.S. to deport Central American immigrants. The announcement for the raids came just ahead of the holidays and continued into the new year. Candidates running in the Democratic presidential primary and others condemned the administration’s decision.

“We’re upset,” Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t know who was advising that this was a smart move to make at the holidays. … Parents are keeping kids home from school, many are not going to work or are afraid to even leave the house to buy groceries. They’re literally tearing apart families.”

Immigration officials are using varying tactics to remove illegal immigrants. The warrants issued, for the most part, cover only the ability to pick people up, not enter homes. That means officials must deploy tactics to dupe people into allowing them to enter – leading Guatemala and El Salvador to warn ex-pats not to open their doors to strangers.

The number of migrants trying to enter the U.S. from Central America surged late last year. More than 10,000 children traveling by themselves were detained at the border in the months of October and November. That is in addition to the 12,500 people traveling as families who were caught during the same period. Both totals represented major increases as compared to the same two months in 2014 and harkened back to the crisis levels of June 2014.

The surge has continued up until today, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Groups in border states like Arizona are helping out immigration officials to support those who make it to the border. Increasing violence and persistent poverty are the main drivers for the mass movement of people. More than 17,000 homicides were recorded in the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in 2015. Guatemala says its gang violence rose by 60 percent between 2014 and 2015. El Salvador is also experiencing a similar rise in fighting – causing people to take action out of fear of harm.

In response to the problems, the Obama administration increased foreign aid to the countries, increased border security precautions, and “returned” more people to their home countries. The $750 million Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle spending package will mostly support training for security and prosecution, as well as fund youth-focused programming. However, as Humanosphere reported last month, the aid package could do more harm than good, because it is a short-term fix.

The lack of security and Obama’s tactics are cause for concern, says presidential hopeful and Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders. He called for a changed approach, in a letter addressed to Obama and published on his Senate website, and specifically wants Temporary Protected Status granted to migrant children and families.

“I urge you to immediately end these raids and not deport families back to countries where a death sentence awaits,” wrote Sanders. “We cannot continue to employ inhumane tactics involving rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of immigrant families to address a crisis that requires compassion.”

According to the Obama administration, the people removed in recent raids are undocumented and already exhausted their attempts to gain asylum or immigrant status in the U.S. The majority of the 121 people detained at the start of the year were living in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, according to a release by Homeland Security.

It claims that the number of people being turned away at the border was the lowest in decades by the middle of 2015. But the data made available by the government are opaque. Deportation is no longer the term used for people kicked out of the U.S., the official term is “removal.” And those who do not make it past the border are “returned.” That distinction is only 20 years old and saw some changes in the years that followed.

“Comparing the deportation statistics across different presidential administrations is dicey because it is unclear what categories of people are actually being counted and categorized,” explained Anna Law, a lawyer and professor, in the Monkey Cage blog. “Moreover, different administrations choose to emphasize different statistics. Dara Lind notes that the Bush administration seems to have reported removals and returns together, but Obama’s administration has emphasized only its number of removals.”

Available data show that removals rose each year since the start of the Bush administration in 2000, while returns fell over the same period. It may be that the Obama administration is taking a harder line on illegal immigrants in the U.S. Or it is doing a better job at the border, giving it more resources to deal with the cumulative number of illegal immigrants who entered during and before it held office.

The issue of migration returned to national attention when Donald Trump made immigration and refugee resettlement his top campaign topics. His hard-line stance on allowing foreigners into the U.S. has drawn criticism from both political parties and reignited debates over how the U.S. should deal with illegal immigrants.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.