Expanded U.S. deportation policy targets undocumented minors

Three girls in quinceañera dresses play along the U.S.-Mexico border fence at the beach in Tijuana. (Romel Jacinto/Flickr)

The aggressive “deportation force” President Trump promised in the campaign has become a reality, and immigration advocates warn it will make undocumented minors more vulnerable than ever.

Documents released on Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security revealed aggressive and sweeping guidelines on deportations, including the expedited removal of illegal migrants who have been living in the U.S. for up to two years. Currently, rapid removal is only used for migrants who cannot show they have been in the country more than 14 days.

“The Department will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” one document says.

The policy is severe when compared to President Barack Obama’s, which mainly focused on deporting dangerous criminals, national-security threats and recent border crossers. The new policies are likely to be welcomed by some Republicans and law enforcement officials, who have been calling for a tougher crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and tighter control of the U.S.-Mexico border.

But immigrant advocates say the deportation orders are essentially written to include everyone while looking like they target criminals — a recipe for potential policing abuses and racial profiling.

One of the most controversial changes in policy is the new treatment of child migrants. In an attempt to stem the surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America over the last three years, the orders prosecute the parents of unaccompanied minors as smugglers and strips deportation protection from thousands of children.

According to Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, the consequence is that parents may be reluctant or worry about coming forward to sponsor their children out of immigration custody for fear of facing criminal charges and deportation.

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“Potentially we could see children either sitting in immigration custody for very long periods of time, or return to their home countries, where there may not be an adult to take care of them,” Woltjen told Humanosphere.

Currently, undocumented children are permitted to stay with documented, legal guardians until their immigration claims are processed. If subjected to rapid removal process, Woltjen said these children may be returned to dangerous situations in their home countries.

“The reason most of them are coming is because of violence in Central America, where countries are unable to protect their own citizens,” she added. “So these children leave, and their parents arrange for their children to leave because they’re worried about their children’s safety, as any parent would be.”

Advocates warn that the new directives will create an atmosphere of fear, driving undocumented minors and other migrants away from law enforcement and into the shadows. DHS officials have denied that the orders would produce mass roundups or deportations, and said some of the new policies could take months to put in effect.

“We don’t need a sense of panic in the communities,” a DHS official said in a conference call with reporters, according to the Washington Post. “We do not have the personnel, time or resources to go into communities and round up people and do all kinds of mass throwing folks on buses. That’s entirely a figment of folks’ imagination. This is not intended to produce mass roundups, mass deportations.”

The new orders also leave in place two of Obama’s executive orders with respect to immigration, the first being a 2012 policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects “Dreamers” who were brought to the country as children, from the threat of deportation. The other, an order made in 2014, allows millions of parents of U.S. citizens or permanent resident children to stay in the country despite entering illegally.

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Advocates have condemned another provision of the memos that provides Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with the authority to effectively target any undocumented migrant who has either been convicted or accused of any crime, or is, in the assessment of an ICE or border control officer, “a risk to public safety.” That could include people arrested for anything from possession of marijuana to minor traffic offenses.

The DHS will also publish data on these crimes, which advocates say promotes a stigma in contradiction with research that shows lower levels of crime among immigrants than among native-born Americans. One organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has vowed to resist the new strategy.

“These memos confirm that the Trump administration is willing to trample on due process, human decency, the well-being of our communities, and even protections for vulnerable children, in pursuit of a hyper-aggressive mass deportation policy,” Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “However, President Trump does not have the last word here – the courts and the public will not allow this un-American dream to become reality.”

Most of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are part of the country’s social and economic fabric. The majority have been in the U.S. for more than 15 years, and roughly 8 million of them are in the workforce. Many have children, spouses and other relatives who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com