Guest Column: How (not) to respond to the refugee crisis in the U.S.

By Sara Dady
Immigration Attorney, Dady & Hoffmann LLC

The United States of America is supposed to stand for due process of law, not just rule of law, but we are falling woefully short of this principle in our response to the crises at the border.

The influx of children fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is projected to exceed 90,000 by the end of the year. The media are mischaracterizing the arrival of these children (and family groups — usually with the mother only) as “illegal” entries and conflate it with the ongoing immigration reform debate. It is minimized as a “border security” issue by Congress (including by our very own Congressman, Adam Kinzinger) or an “immigration” problem that can be remedied by expediting deportations.

However, this is not an immigration problem. Immigrants come to the U.S. seeking to live and work permanently in the U.S. Refugees and people seeking asylum are forced to relocate to the U.S. because they are fleeing civil war, persecution or natural disasters in their home countries.

Setting aside the facts that our immigration system is badly broken, does not (and never did) provide a lawful means for the more than 11 million number of immigrants our economy relies upon to obtain legal status, has decades-long wait times for visas for those immigrants who are lucky enough to fall within the specific visa categories (which is not majority) and separates more than 1,000 families per day by deportation, the border has never been more secure.

According to U.S. Border Patrol apprehension statistics, there were only 420,789 apprehensions in 2013, fewer than half of the 1,160,395 apprehensions in 2004. From fiscal years 1976 to 2010, apprehensions were more than 500,000 every year. In fact, the Border Patrol averaged 1,083,495 apprehensions per year compared to just 420,789 in 2013. Fewer people are crossing the border without inspection, and more who do are being apprehended.

The children and family groups now arriving at our border are not attempting to elude border patrol agents, they are actively turning themselves over to our patrols. Sending the National Guard to patrol the border will not change the fact that the children and family groups are seeking refuge in the U.S. The National Guard will not assist in making sure these children get a fair hearing and a safe place to stay pending their hearings. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services reports that 63 percent of these children qualify to make applications for asylum or other legal status allowed by U.S. law. Deportation has never been a cure for the forces that drive people from their homes. It will not solve this problem now.

The U.S. has a duty to provide a fair hearing to people who have a credible fear of being sent back to their home country. This is both a legal and moral obligation. Calls to stem the flood of children by an impracticable attempt to shut down the border and remove even the appearance of due process of law is unconscionable. What kind of country greets children and mothers fleeing rape, forced gang membership, beatings and murder with angry protests and deportation without a fair hearing?

This sort of callousness toward the most vulnerable of human beings — especially children — can never be justified. Even if we refuse to admit responsibility for decades of U.S. drug and deportation policies that have destabilized these three countries in particular, we are legally obligated to treat refugees humanely and fairly. The U.S. is not used to seeing refugees at the border, but it is happening and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. Mothers and children do not head north on a whim; they are being driven out under threats of death and abuse by gangs and criminal organizations that act with impunity or even with the complicity of their governments. Countries with far fewer resources than ours have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees — whether they wanted to or not.

According to Global Trends, UHCR Report 2012: “Overall, Afghanistan remains the biggest producer of refugees (2.7 million) followed by Iraq (1.4 million), Somalia (1.1 million), Sudan (500,000) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (491,000). … Among industrialized countries, Germany ranks as the largest hosting country with 571,700 refugees. South Africa, meanwhile, was the largest recipient of individual asylum applications (107,000), a status it has held for the past four years.” Both Jordan and Turkey have registered more than 600,000 Syrian refugees within their borders.

The U.S. accepted just fewer than 70,000 refugees last year, mostly from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma, Somalia and Cuba. From 2007 to 2013, the U.S. accepted 85,000 Iraqi refugees — out of the 1.4 million Iraqis displaced by the war. It is not a matter of whether we should help people who are fleeing for their lives, the question is how best do we help them? Certainly not by putting them on the first flight back to a country where they are likely to be killed.

Instead of allocating resources to immediately deport people seeking asylum in the U.S., we absolutely must provide meaningful legal hearings with legal representation to assist in preparing applications for relief from deportation. Shame on a Congress — eager to change laws to hurt the most vulnerable of people while refusing to honor laws that will help them. Shame on those who have folded their arms and closed their minds against children seeking our help. We are on a dangerous moral road when we shut our doors against people fleeing for their very lives.

From the Sept. 10-16, 2014, issue

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