As the United States conducts raids, roundups, and deportations of asylum-seeking children and families from Central America, it’s important to know what's true, what's right, and what's legal. Use the key points and background below to inform your conversations and actions.

Key points | Background and update | Key points in detail

Key points

Click on each key point to read more detail.

  1. The Department of Homeland Security is using state police tactics — from family detention and abuses to home raids and roundups — to rush deportations, instill fear among immigrants in the United States, and deter other Central American asylum seekers from coming to the United States.
      
  2. It is imperative to be clear on the legal distinctions: asylum seekers and refugees are not "illegal immigrants."
     
  3. The main issue is whether these women and children have been given adequate screening and due process to determine their eligibility for international protection and asylum in the United States.
     
  4. The United States is not abiding by international accords regarding asylum seekers' rights, deportation, and refoulement (forcing refugees back to a place of persecution and danger).
     
  5. The U.S. refugee processing program for minors still in Central America is a sham and a failure. Within the United States, vulnerable asylum-seeking children are getting the short end of the rights stick.

Background and update

On December 24, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would begin rounding up Central American asylum seekers who have entered the United States since 2014, who have subsequently received removal orders, and whose asylum requests allegedly failed to gain acceptance. Deportation raids of private homes began the weekend of January 2, mainly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, and DHS reported that 121 individuals were taken into custody.

The raids reportedly included illegal entries to private homes without warrants, searching for unaccompanied children and families who entered the United States after 2014, and whose requests for asylum have been denied. Immigration lawyers, UUSC, and other human rights advocates, organizations and, lawmakers are decrying the tactics, saying most families being rounded up in invasive household raids for deportation either still have pending cases or never had adequate access in the first place to translators and legal counsel to understand their rights and the processes required for their asylum claims, as is mandated federally for asylum seekers.

According to U.S. statistics, unaccompanied Central American children began crossing the southern U.S. border in 2013. In the summer of 2014, a surge of unaccompanied children and families began to pour over the border, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Since the 2014 surge, the DHS reports that some 100,000 have been held and processed. Then they have either been deported, detained in family detention centers (some for more than a year), or, for those who qualify, released on bail or with electronic monitoring while they await court hearings for their asylum cases. As early as March 2015, the United States has ordered more than 7,000 of those children deported without hearing in court.

Children alone and mothers with children who have returned to the same violent environments they'd fled now face even greater threat of retribution and death, if their return is discovered by gang members and other perpetrators who had originally exploited them.

Key points in detail

1.  The Department of Homeland Security is using state police tactics — from family detention and abuses to home raids and roundups — to rush deportations, instill fear among immigrants in the United States, and deter other Central American asylum seekers from coming to the United States.

  • DHS’s recent tactics of raiding people’s homes and rounding up Central American asylum seekers is a thinly guised effort to drive fear within immigrant communities in the United States and in Central America, and to deter other child and adult asylum seekers who would seek safe haven and protection in the United States.   
  • Attorneys representing nearly a quarter of the families apprehended and on the edge of deportation the week of January 4 gained last-minute stays to their deportation orders by the highest U.S. immigrations appeal court.
  • The CARA pro bono attorneys project expedited assisting seven of those families over the weekend, and all were granted permission to stay in the United States temporarily.
  • Meanwhile, UUSC's partner RAICES reports that some women with asylum cases still pending have been visited for potential roundup and deportation.

2. It is imperative to be clear on the legal distinctions: asylum seekers and refugees are not "illegal immigrants."

  • Refugees and asylum seekers are a category of migrants distinct from the broader category of documented and undocumented immigrants who come to the United States or other countries for economic reasons or a better life. Asylum seekers are entitled by U.S. and international law to appeal for protection within the United States or other receiving countries and are entitled to due process and legal counsel.
  • Central American unaccompanied children and children with parents seeking asylum in the United States are refugees fleeing violence and death in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As Royce Murray of the National Immigrant Justice Center said in a VICE News report, “There is a failure to recognize that this is a refugee flow.”
  • According to its Children on the Run report, UNHCR, the U.N.  Refugee Agency, has recommended that children of this population be treated as refugees.

3.  The main issue is whether these women and children have been given adequate screening and due process to determine their eligibility for international protection and asylum in the United States.

  • Asylum-seeking Central American families and unaccompanied children are being denied due process, misled, and obstructed in receiving sufficient access to legal counsel by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and their contracted private detention center officials.
  • UUSC and other refugee rights advocates claim that DHS is leveraging the summer 2015 federal court ruling that mandated 20-day maximum detention of children and parents as a means to justify rushing them through the processing period in order to do the following:
    • Short-circuit and obstruct claimants' rightful access to legal counsel and representation for each step in the asylum seekers' review processes
    • Make it difficult for claimants to understand the system, processes, and requirements to prepare for their ultimate asylum case court hearings — or even to receive required legal notices of appointments and court dates
    • Expedite and increase deportations of families and unaccompanied children back to the violence they'd left and, as in numerous documented cases to date, to their deaths
  • Rights advocates and attorneys are finding that many of the Central American families now in detention from the raids and awaiting deportation — most of whom do not speak English and some who speak only indigenous languages — have never had access to proper legal counsel and representation.
  • That finding is consistent with UUSC's and pro bono attorneys' experience with this group of refugees since the crisis and practice of family detention began in 2014.
  • According to the research group TRAC, of 64,500 family migration cases that have filtered through the courts as of late 2015, all had passed the required "credible fear" interviews. Less than 40% had legal representation. Among those, a small fraction of the cases were fully resolved, resulting in fewer than 700 granted relief.
  • For those cases without counsel, however, the outcomes were even bleaker: just 38 were granted relief, and more than 15,300 ordered deported.

4. The United States is not abiding by international accords regarding asylum seekers' rights, deportation, and refoulement (forcing refugees back to a place where they face persecution and danger).

  • Consistent with the 1980 Refugee Act and the U.N. Convention against Torture, the U.S. government must ensure that all adults and children arriving at the U.S. border who express a fear of serious human rights violations, persecution, or torture be given due process and the opportunity to articulate their fear of return before an asylum officer.
  • The U.S. government stands to violate the principle of non-refoulement if these women and children asylum seekers have not been afforded these opportunities.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has attempted to justify its raids to date, saying it is deporting only unaccompanied children and families whose legal options for asylum have reached an end.
  • As Fusion reports, the Obama administration has set a record for the most deportations of any previous U.S. administration — more than 2.5 million. Tainting that record further are the probable inappropriate deportations back to violence now of Central American families and children.

5. The U.S. refugee processing program for minors still in Central America is a sham and a failure. Within the United States, vulnerable asylum-seeking children are getting the short end of the rights stick.

The U.S. Central American Minors Program

  • In December 2014, the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS) created the Central American Minors program (CAM), under which minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala could apply in their home countries to be refugees in the United States and avoid the dangerous journey through Mexico.
  • As of October 6, 2015 — nearly a year after the program opened — the U.S. government said it had interviewed only 90 of nearly 4,000 Central Americans who had applied. Most of those interviewed were found eligible for assistance, but as of an October 28, 2015, Huffington Post report, none of those children had come to the United States.
  • As of November, more than 5,100 of the nearly 6,000 CAM applications have come from El Salvador. At point, 16 of them have been approved, according to department figures.

Within the United States

  • Children go through a truncated 21-day processing schedule known as “rocket dockets.” Many claimants lacked legal counsel or didn’t even show up for the hearing before their claims were rejected.
  • A recent exposé by Politico found that, within the United States, 7,600 children among the Central American refugees have either been ordered removed by an immigration judge or accepted terms of voluntary departure.
  • According to that same Politico report, in the first 13 months of the so-called surge (from July 18, 2014, through August 31, 2015), nearly 2,800 removal orders were issued by immigration judges for children and youth age 18 and younger who were afforded no defense lawyer and only a single hearing. Of those, at least 392 (40%) were 16 or younger. 
  • The Politico article cites a related and still pending federal lawsuit in Seattle “in which immigrant rights attorneys have argued that thousands of children have been denied their due process rights under the Constitution. . . . Thus far, Justice has successfully fought the case to largely a draw. But the presiding judge is clearly torn by the situation, and in an April order, he denied the administration’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed entirely."
  • According to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a child is five times more likely to be deported without a lawyer, and yet there is no system for guaranteeing legal counsel for unaccompanied children.
  • Indeed, as cited by the Syracuse University research TRAC Immigration source, the U.S. government is under no obligation to provide legal counsel to the indigent, even if they are children, in immigration court proceedings. Meanwhile, the government is always represented by an attorney.
  • Although fewer children are entering the United States alone, the violence in their home countries has not decreased. Violence in El Salvador has in fact recently increased, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).