Asylum-Seeking Families at Risk Under Trump’s Aggressive Immigration Policies

In just over a month, the new administration has executed a multi-pronged assault upon refugees and asylum-seekers who need humanitarian protections that the United States can and must provide.

Legally, people who are on U.S. soil, and meet the definition of a “refugee” should be granted asylum protections. This means that they face or fear persecution if they were returned to their country of origin based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

98% of CAM applicants report exposure to danger in communityThe U.S. has seen a dramatic rise in asylum claims in the past decade, largely fueled by escalating violence and widespread international gang activity that has created a deadly crisis in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, often referred to as the “Northern Triangle” of Central America. Families seeking asylum have fled the region at incredibly high rates. From 2008-2014, asylum applications increased over 1,000% in the countries that neighbor the Northern Triangle and rose 370% in the United States.

In FY2016, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors and 77,857 families nationwide, most at the southwestern border. Many of these families were Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service reports conducting nearly 100,000 credible fear screenings of asylum seekers in FY2016, with extremely high granting rates: nearly 80% of people that pundits and critics call “illegal immigrants” have a credible fear of persecution in their home country.

Refugees from the Northern Triangle

In 2014, the Obama administration created a limited refugee resettlement program allowing some children in the Northern Triangle to apply for refugee protections and be reunited with a parent who is a legal resident in the United States. The program was touted as saving children the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, and allowed them to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Since November 2014, there have been nearly 11,000 applications for the program and approximately 1,800 children have been reunited with their parents here in the United States with either refugee status or humanitarian parole. UUSC researchers spent the last year conducting research about how to make the Central American Minors In-Country Refugee Processing Program (CAM) even more effective and have direct testimony from CAM participants about the need for this life saving pathway to safety.

The children who use CAM are in imminent danger at the hands of gangs and corrupt police where they live. When asked why they applied for refugee status, CAM applicants have shared reasons like:

  • “I received threats from a gang member. Before that, two friends of mine who played on the same soccer team in which I played appeared dead . . . he told me that if I did not want something to happen to me or be killed, I should leave the neighborhood.”
  • “My fear sometimes is that my baby will get sick at night . . . no one leaves and if they leave they have to be accountable for where they go to the gangs. . . [my baby] suffers from epilepsy and I have to go for treatments in San Salvador, when we go we try to do everything fast, to return early . . . it is very difficult to live constantly with fear.”
  • “I am afraid to leave the house now because gang members meet outside my house . . . My family and I are in danger . . . if we do not give the [rent] they are going to kill one of us . . . you cannot live in peace.”

However, President Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order suspending all refugee resettlement for 120 days likewise suspended CAM. While a handful of CAM refugees who had already been granted refugee status have been able to fly to the United States in the weeks since the 9th Circuit Court stayed the presidents’ executive order, the administration has effectively halted refugee processing. This avenue to refuge is now closed for thousands of Central American children who may have to begin their application almost from scratch when and if CAM is reinstated.

Part of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico.
Part of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico.

With the refugee program halted, children will need to travel through Mexico to seek asylum at the U.S. border. There, too, the administration appears poised to cause immense harm to asylum-seeking families and children. DHS Secretary Kelly’s recent memos indicate that the department will:

  • Extend the border wall to make entry into the United States more difficult.
  • Deport asylum-seekers to Mexico or place them in U.S. detention centers while they await a decision on their case, placing families in inhumane prison-like conditions that we know causes lasting harm.
  • Strip protections for unaccompanied children that are guaranteed by law and charge parents with “human trafficking” for bringing their children to the United States.

Alarmingly, reports from El Paso, Texas, indicate that CBP agents have already turned asylum-seekers back from official ports of entry, denying them even the chance to make their asylum claim.

DHS Memos Threaten Immigrants’ Rights, Families, and Safety

Over the long holiday weekend, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly issued two memos spelling out the implementation of Donald Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration. These memos eliminate all doubt that the administration intends to follow through on the worst of its threats in the orders signed on January 25, 2017. The memos also harden into national policy some of the most egregious human rights abuses advocates have been witnessing on the border and in our cities in recent weeks.

This is not “business as usual.” Secretary Kelly’s memos take unprecedented steps at removing long-held constitutional and statutory protections in immigration proceedings, continue to criminalize immigrants, and put children and parents lawfully seeking refuge at risk of criminal charges and separation. UUSC remains vigilant in watching the Trump administration’s efforts to expand policy in ways that violate civil and human rights and continues to work with our partners on the ground to support those affected by these unnecessary, harmful policies.

Here is a quick rundown of some of the troubling activities outlined in the memos.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can easily target just about any undocumented person for deportation and deny them due process protections.

The administration is throwing out years of “prosecutorial discretion” guidelines that had offered a small bedrock of security, however tenuous, for undocumented families. Under this new regime, anyone targeted by an ICE agent or picked up during a raid is at risk of being deported. This could separate parents from their U.S. citizen children and expel people who have lived in this country for decades or longer. The memos also designate as an enforcement priority deportation of anyone who has committed a “chargeable criminal offense,” even if they have never been arrested, tried, or convicted.

The memos will likewise expand the use of “expedited removal,” which allows ICE to deport people without any legal proceedings. This form of summary removal will now apply to every undocumented immigrant who can’t prove they have been in the country for more than two years, stripping an even wider category of immigrants of their Fifth Amendment right to due process. Such hasty deportations can be a matter of life and death since deportees from the United States are often singled out for persecution by criminal groups in Central America and Mexico.

People will be increasingly criminalized because of their immigration status.

In calling for heavier prosecution of crimes related to the southern border, Secretary Kelly has swept together grave matters like human trafficking with innocuous and victimless immigration offenses. Many of these offenses, like giving a false social security number to an employer or driving without a license, are all but inescapable for undocumented people who need to work and put food on the table. Aggressively prosecuting immigration violations will push even more innocent people into deportation proceedings. It will basically make it a crime to survive as an undocumented person in the United States.

More concerning still, there is a serious danger that these new policies will slam asylum-seekers with “illegal entry” charges if they cross the border at an “improper time or place,” which would violate international law by making it a crime to seek protection. Advocates have already heard reports that this is happening in some locations.

Asylum-seekers can be detained en masse, with little hope of parole, or worse – pushed back across the border.

Secretary Kelly has called for the near-total restriction of parole for immigrants in detention currently awaiting their court dates (many of which will be years in the future due to backlogs in the system). We have heard stories of ICE arresting and re-detaining people previously released, as well as refusing to consider parole applications from asylum-seekers.

This form of detention, in facilities run by private prison contractors, allows for the long-term incarceration of people who have done nothing worse than a civil immigration violation.

The memos will also allow DHS to send people back to Mexico to await the completion of removal proceedings regardless of whether they are Mexican nationals. Treating asylum-seekers this way would amount to a violation of international law, which forbids pushing people back across the border without screening if they have expressed fear for their safety.

Strip protections for unaccompanied children that are guaranteed by law and charge parents with “human trafficking” for bringing their children to the United States.

Currently, children who cross the border alone are protected from summary deportation under the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Kelly’s memos redefine the term “unaccompanied child” to exclude refugee children who cross the border without adults, but subsequently reunite with their parents in the United States. This would open the door to placing children of any age into expedited removal and denying them their lawful protections under the TVPRA.

Finally, Kelly’s memos target undocumented parents for deportation or criminal charges under human trafficking laws if their children seek refuge in the United States. Parents from Central America often have few options to help their asylum-seeking children escape their persecutors apart from hiring a smuggler because criminal networks now control nearly all border crossings. The Secretary’s memos permit DHS to prosecute these parents as accessories to smuggling and human trafficking, essentially criminalizing them for protecting their children’s safety.

 


In response to concerns about how the Trump administration is likely to proceed, UUSC has joined with the Unitarian Universalist Association on an unprecedented course of action to align ourselves together, united in purpose to protect the values of our democracy and those vulnerable populations among us.

As a first step, we have prepared a Declaration of Conscience stating in the strongest possible terms our commitment in these troubling times. By signing the declaration, you join us in affirming our core values and declaring our willingness to put them into action. We encourage you to read the full declaration here, and add your name.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

The Resistance Prevented Puzder From Becoming Labor Secretary, The Nation, John Nicols, February 15, 2017

Last Wednesday, Andrew Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, withdrew his nomination due to mounting public pressure, opposition, criticism, and most of all, resistance. Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, a parent company to many fast-food chains, has a bad reputation when it comes to worker’s rights. He has never advocated for increasing the minimum wage despite increasing overtime hours, has a history of sexist behavior, and allegations of 30 years of domestic abuse from his ex-wife. Trump’s nomination of Puzder was a disappointing blow to many workers across the country, especially after a campaign full of promises to increase wages. He is, as Elizabeth Warren stated, “the opposite of what we need in a labor secretary.”

Puzder’s reputation, opposition from republicans, but mainly resistance movements, were the perfect combination to put pressure on Puzder to step down. Labor activists and worker’s rights groups rallied and continued to gain momentum and build support for the worker’s right movement.

If you’re passionate about worker’s rights, join our partner, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), on their Return to Human Rights Tour. The march begins March 16 in Gainesville, Florida and will go through 12 cities, ending in Columbus, Ohio at the headquarters of Wendy’s on March 29.

This is What a Day Without Immigrants Looks Like, Colorlines, Kenrya Rankin, February 16, 2017

Photo of immigrants and allies at a protestIn response to the administration’s executive orders, “Muslim bans” and increasing ICE raids, immigrants and allies organized “A Day Without Immigrants” as an act of resistance and solidarity. Restaurants, businesses, and immigrant workers across the country stayed home from work and some even kept their children home from school. The main goal for this day was to show Americans the many ways in which immigrants contribute to society. Convenience stories to high end restaurants across the country closed their doors to show solidarity with their workers and the immigrant community.

Check out the rest of the article to see some amazing photos that captured this day.

Federal immigration raids net many without criminal records, sowing fear, The Washington Post, February 16, 2017

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are disregarding long-held rules and standards on who to arrest and where. Immigrants have been victims of racial profiling and arrested outside churches where they are seeking sanctuary; leaving domestic violence proceedings; outside of supermarkets, and arrested without having a criminal record.

Last week, nearly 700 immigrants were rounded up in a series of ICE raids that took place all over the country, inciting a new degree of fear in immigrant communities. Families are refusing to leave their homes and some have stopped sending their children to school for fear of being picked up. Despite ICE’s claims that they are only arresting those with dangerous criminal records, close to 200 of those that were arrested last week had no criminal record whatsoever.

Read more about the Muslim ban, ICE raids, and other events in our blog Rights, Rulings, and Raids: Unpacking recent events.

What Will Happen to Refugees Under a Trump Administration?

refugees walking in sunsetAs we prepare for President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, we know that what we do and the way we work must change. UUSC has been working hard, connecting with local, state, and national partners to understand what the effects may be for refugees and immigrants, and how to best to mobilize in the face of increased racism, xenophobia, hate, and fear. 

This is an important time for all of us to carefully reflect, evaluate, and redouble our commitment to human rights both inside and beyond the United States. This is a struggle that will require each and every one of us to take action in a wide range of roles. With our partners, UUSC is preparing an exciting new comprehensive campaign to be launched in January. Please watch for announcements about how you can join this effort. 

In the meantime, it is important for all of us to become more aware of what is at stake for U.S. policy towards welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers – some of the most vulnerable communities under the incoming administration.   

Can Trump shut down the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program?

Short answer: Yes, but he is more likely to undermine it than shut it down completely.

  • The President-elect has said that he will not challenge local, county, and state regulations that bar refugees from resettlement in their communities.
  • President Trump will have the authority, under the 1980 Refugee Act, to unilaterally determine the number of refugees the U.S. will accept. This year, President Obama raised that number from 70,000 to 110,000 for 2017. President Trump can set a new number – even as low as zero.
  • The President-elect’s public statements suggest that he is very likely to shrink, underfund, or “pause” the refugee resettlement program, in order to review the process. A suspension of resettlement is extremely dangerous because, while it sounds less serious than “dismantling” resettlement, it could have the same result. All of the infrastructure, including refugee resettlement agencies that depend on federal funding, would be forced to close, and would not be easy to re-establish if and when it was restarted.

Can refugees already in the U.S. be deported?

Short answer: In most cases, no, but the exceptions may become more common.

  • Refugees already in the United States, including those with legal resident green cards as well as those with only refugee status, have legal protection from deportations. However, Trump’s plans to expand the definition of who is a “criminal immigrant” and thus, possibly deportable, will surely catch many refugees in its wider net. Any non-citizen who is 1) charged, but not convicted of a crime, 2) has a non-violent misdemeanor record (no matter how long ago), or 3) is merely suspected of gang behavior, will likely be priority categories for deportation under a Trump presidency.
  • Asylum-seekers, such as the Central American families held in family detention centers, may be held in detention for multiple years while they pursue protection. In addition to an unacceptable human rights violation, this also makes it harder for them to have access to a lawyer as they pursue their case.
  • If a Trump Administration reinstates the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System (NSEERS), described as his “Muslim registry,” U.S. visa-holders from majority-Muslim countries will be subject to heightened monitoring and increased risk of deportation. This will include both asylum-seekers and non-refugees.

Can Trump actually ban Muslim refugees from entering the United States?

Short Answer: Kind of – and more.

  • While an across-the-board ban designed to block all Muslims from entering the United States (e.g., as a tourist or student, on a business visa, etc.) is widely believed to be unconstitutional, he absolutely has power to limit entry as it pertains to refugees. The administration may prioritize Christians and other non-Muslims for resettlement or, more likely, stop refugee resettlement for entire countries and regions, primarily but not exclusively Muslim-majority countries, regardless of the individual’s religious background.

What else could happen?

Short Answer: Unfortunately, a lot we don’t know, but here are a list of some immediate possibilities and areas for concern. (That’s why we need to organize!)

  • There is a high risk of states passing anti-refugee bills, which the federal government under Trump would be likely to support rather than challenge.
  • The possible end of the Affordable Care Act will result in a high rate of loss of health care coverage for refugee families.
  • Asylum-seekers could be blocked at the border and not allowed to apply for entry (in violation of international law). Our advocacy partners have already documented cases of this happening in Tijuana, Mexico.
  • There could be threats to LGBTQ asylum-seekers status as a protected “social group,” which provides them a right to asylum when targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Despite these disturbing possibilities, we see many reasons to be hopeful in this moment, in particular, the work of community members like you. Grassroots movements are growing and many people are getting involved in local and regional efforts for the first time. This sense of urgency is helping to break down barriers and bring diverse groups together to protect and defend current rights, and continue working for a more just future.

What you can do: The Haitian Immigration Crisis

We must act now to avert a U.S.-made disaster affecting thousands of Haitians

Background

On September 22, apparently in response to anti-immigrant political pressure, DHS revoked a policy that allowed survivors of the 2010 Haitian earthquake to enter and stay in the United States. Yesterday, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson affirmed that decision, stating, “the policy has not changed in light of Hurricane Matthew.” Although deportation flights have been temporarily halted, DHS officials are still arranging to deport Haitians from the United States. Haiti has said it does not have the capacity to receive them, even before the hurricane. Additionally, DHS policy puts families entering the United States at risk of being separated.

On Oct 12, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security announced that they will be temporarily suspending deportations to Haiti as a result of the damage Hurricane Matthew has done to the country. However, they stand behind the decision to increase deportations to Haiti and intend to keep thousands of non-criminal Haitian citizens in detention indefinitely until they renew deportations to Haiti.

With the loss in lives and property still being measured, this is no time to start deporting and detaining Haitians seeking to recover. Join UUSC in telling DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson:

  • Restore U.S. humanitarian policy that allows Haitians seeking refuge to enter the country.
  • Allow all Haitians already in the United States to stay and remain safe as the country recovers.
  • Keep families together in all cases.

How you can help

Support UUSC
UUSC is also working to strengthen our emergency response capacity—a capacity that can be a matter of life and death for the most marginalized and the most vulnerable. Help us respond to this humanitarian crisis and continue our life saving work around the world by rushing a generous gift to UUSC right now.

Take action
Let’s treat Haitians in the United States and on the border with the respect and dignity they deserve. Tell Secretary Johnson: We must restore U.S. policy that allows Haitians to enter the United States, allow those already in the country to stay, and keep families together. Sign and send a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson today.

Send a “Selfie of Solidarity”
Stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti by sharing a message of support in Haitian Creole. Make your own sign using the language below or click the message to print out a pre-made version, then take a selfie or group photo with your congregation while holding the message.

Send the photos to mobilization@uusc.org by Friday, November 4, 2016. We’ll compile all the images we receive and send all of them together to our partners on the ground. Please include your name and, if applicable, the name of your congregation or organization so we can share that information with our partners.

Join UUSC’s Refugee Rapid Response Network
Keep track of the latest news about refugee rights and how you can help protect them. Help the United States set an example that makes us proud by participating in actions and programs in your community, or by providing support for humanitarian assistance throughout the world. Sign up now.

Sign up to volunteer with UUCSJ
The UU College of Social Justice is in conversation with Haiti partners to determine whether volunteers from the United States can be of use in recovery efforts. As we engage in this discernment, we welcome potential volunteers to fill out this form, so we can begin to create a “skills bank” of those willing and able to assist. Add your name to volunteer here.

Congregational Resources

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