A Guatemalan family in L.A., members of which are facing deportation. Reuters/Danny Moloshok

The administration’s system for protecting asylum-seekers and other immigrants has major flaws, ones that have led to deaths following deportations.

The Obama administration is gearing up for a fresh wave of raids against Central American migrants in what’s likely “the largest deportation sweep targeting immigrant families,” Reuters reported Thursday:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has now told field offices nationwide to launch a 30-day "surge" of arrests focused on mothers and children who have already been told to leave the United States, the document seen by Reuters said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Jennifer Elzea didn’t explicitly confirm these details, but in an email to CityLab, she stressed that ICE’s “current operations” were in line with announcements Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson made in January and March. She also reiterated that all targets for enforcement would be individuals and families who crossed the border illegally after 2014, and who have subsequently been ordered to be removed by an immigration judge with no pending appeals or claims for asylum or humanitarian relief under U.S. laws. (Families who entered before that year and have no criminal records are de-prioritized for deportation according to 2014’s Department of Homeland Security directive.)

If these raids are conducted in the same fashion as the ones in January, they’re likely to deepen the mistrust that immigrant communities already harbor toward the U.S. government.

The impact of the last round of raids

In January, ICE detained 121 young mothers and children, primarily from Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina—the “more conservative jurisdictions with abysmally low approval rates for asylum claims,” says Katie Shepherd, managing attorney at the CARA Pro Bono Project, who has been filing emergency appeals on behalf of many of those rounded up at the Dilley detention center in Texas. (In total, 336 individuals were taken into custody since the beginning of the year in what DHS Secretary Johnson calls “operation border guardian.”)

ICE prefers not to use the term “raids” to describe these actions. “What we do is careful and targeted administrative immigration enforcement based on our priorities,” Ezlea wrote via email. But immigrant advocates and lawmakers, including the two Democratic presidential candidates, see a different version of events.

Based on accounts from Central American women that ICE took into custody, the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that the January raids “trampled legal rights, subjected mothers and children to terrifying and unnecessary police encounters, and [tore] families apart.” Their report alleges that ICE agents often failed to show warrants or ask for permission before entering the homes of the migrants they sought. At the time of the raids, many of the targets were complying with the rules and regulations set forth by immigration courts, such as wearing electronic ankle bracelets and keeping up with court appointments, according to SPLC’s report. Separate news accounts show that ICE agents picked up young people on their way to school. Against protocol, they even entered “sensitive locations” such as churches, Vice reports.

The effect of these raids on the immigrant community has been well-documented. Kids have been taken out of school. Their families have stopped going out—even to buy food—turning typically bustling immigrant locales into ghost towns, Esther Yu-Hsi Lee at ThinkProgress writes. Even in immigrant-friendly cities like New York, communities are paralyzed with fear.

As I’ve previously written, harsh policing and sweeping deportations of undocumented immigrants has many negative economic, civic, and social repercussions—for immigrants and their U.S.-born children, as well as the wider communities they live in. Sweeping, jarring raids are likely to exacerbate those outcomes.

The problems with the system that ordered these deportations

By the government’s own measure, more than 85 percent of those detained from Central America have a credible fear of persecution. That point is underscored by a recent report in The Guardian, which found that 83 deportees were killed upon return to their home countries. So why are immigration courts ruling to remove them from the U.S.?

As I’ve previously detailed at length, lack of legal representation is one big reason. According to an analysis of government data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Syracuse University, having a lawyer makes an asylum petitioner 14 times more likely to be able to stay in the U.S. While the Obama administration has rolled out programs to provide more lawyers to children in immigration proceedings, it clearly hasn’t been enough. Of the removal orders issued for the expedited asylum cases from Central America since 2014, 86 percent lacked legal representation. As the system currently stands, young Spanish-speaking mothers and young children are routinely made to navigate a complex and bureaucratic processes in immigration court without a trained professional to advocate on their behalf.  

Many of these people, according to data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, literally didn’t get their day in court, per a letter by the ACLU and other immigrants’ rights organizations to the Obama administration. “The overwhelming majority of unaccompanied children and family units who have been ordered removed by an immigration court—were ordered removed in absentia. Many of these individuals never even receive notice of their hearings,” the letter reads. In 2014, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of children in these deportation proceedings, which is now headed to trial. “If we believe in due process for children in our country, then we cannot abandon them when they face deportation in our immigration courts," Ahilan Arulanantham, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement at the time.

Of the migrants that did get a day in court, few got a meaningful one, CARA Pro Bono Project’s Shepherd told CityLab in January. That’s why all the emergency appeals she and her colleagues filed on behalf of clients targeted in the previous raids were granted by the Board of Immigration Appeals. “I thought the government learned their lesson back in January?” she writes via email.

The ‘cognitive dissonance’ in the Obama administration

The Obama administration can boast about some of the  big steps it’s taken to make the U.S. more welcoming for immigrants—particularly for the undocumented ones for whom the country is home. Their big win is the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which lets young people who were brought to the country illegally as children stay and work in the U.S. In 2014, President Obama announced executive actions to extend DACA and provide deportation relief to undocumented parents of U.S.-born children (called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA). The fate of DAPA lies in the hands of the Supreme Court justices, who will rule on its legality and scope in June. But at the same time, this government has been targeting mothers and children from Central America who, by the U.S. government’s own admission, deserve humanitarian relief.

“This is owned by the White House. These raids are not being conducted by rogue ICE agents,” Joanne Lin, legislative counsel at the ACLU tells CityLab. "How are they going to cultivate any trust in the immigrant community … when these families in these communities see people in their neighborhoods who are getting picked up [by ICE]? That’s where I think there’s a real cognitive dissonance.”

While the government has rolled out refugee programs in Central America, its internal approach to this issue has been sorely lacking in humanity. “The politics of this is that DHS believes that deterrence through deportation is a feasible strategy,”Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tells CityLab.

“They think that women and children who are fleeing violence in Central America will make a decision to take a chance and stay at home, in order to avoid deportation. Not only is that a politically naive decision, but morally, it’s a pretty questionable decision.”

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