Deporter-in-chief snatches refugee children

January 7, 2016

Who should immigrants be most afraid of right now: Donald Trump or Barack Obama? Danny Katch has an answer that should shock the Democrats' liberal supporters.

AFTER HER brother was murdered by a gang, Ana Lizet-Mejia decided to take her 9-year-old son William and flee Honduras for the U.S.

Her fears weren't exaggerated. Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, with an annual murder rate of 90.4 people per 100,000. That would be the equivalent of almost 300,000 homicides each year in the U.S.--more than 20 times higher than the actual number of murders in the U.S. in 2014.

Ana and William entered the United States in the summer of 2014, in the midst of an 18-month period in which 409 children were murdered in Honduras, a country with a smaller population than New York City, according to the New York Times.

The two were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and sent to live with Ana's aunt Joanna Gutierrez in Norcross, Georgia while their case was processed.

But their dream of finding refuge in the U.S. ended in the early morning hours of January 2 of this year, when ICE agents raided Gutierrez's home to send Ana and William back to a country where they fear for their lives.

Children locked in cages in an immigration detention center in Texas
Children locked in cages in an immigration detention center in Texas

Gutierrez told the Los Angeles Times that although Ana never missed a court appointment and wore an ankle monitor assigned to her by the court, ICE agents arrived at her door in an unmarked car and at first claimed they were looking for an African American fugitive she didn't know.

They proceeded to walk through her apartment, waking all the children in the house until they snatched their actual targets, Ana and William, leaving Gutierrez's children "shaking with fear."

Ana Lizet-Mejia and her son were just two of 121 Central American refugees seized by ICE agents in home raids across the country during the first weekend of 2016, sending a wave of panic and rumors through immigrant communities. "We've gotten calls from around the country," said Raúl Ochoa in a radio interview with WBAI's Global Movements Urban Struggles program. "Not just ICE knocking on doors, but ICE undercover in shopping malls and on the street, stopping people and asking for their IDs."

The raids were the beginning of a plan by the Obama administration to round up hundreds of refugee families--heartlessly announced by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on the day before Christmas. "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," declared DHS head Jeh Johnson after the raids. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."

Leaving aside the question of what "values" are held by a government that funds death squads and coups in Central America--not just in the distant past, but right now--and then turns its back on ordinary people fleeing the violence, the fact is that these deportations are not at all consistent with the law--specifically, the international Refugee Convention and Protocol to which the U.S. is a signatory.

WHEN REPUBLICAN presidents do something terrible, millions of people who identify as liberal or progressive in this country know about it--and often take action in protest. When Democrats do the very same thing, it can take years for the party's base supporters to realize the horrible historical precedent that has been set.

Such was the case with Bill Clinton's crime bills and his drive for financial and telecommunications deregulation in the 1990s. The same may turn out to be true about Barack Obama's decision in the summer of 2014 to stop the longstanding practice of putting migrants fleeing violence and persecution under the category of refugees.

That year, over 50,000 unaccompanied children, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, were detained as they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of them arrived with the plan to turn themselves in.

"Remember, these are asylum seekers," explained immigrant lawyer Barbara Hines on Democracy Now! "They have a right to apply for and seek protection in our country. They cannot seek protection from their own country. They must appear and arrive at a border in our country to seek protection under the Refugee Convention."

The dramatic increase in this most desperate form of migration was a foreshadowing of the refugee crisis in Europe the following year, which was similarly rooted in the policies of the imperial powers. Central America has been devastated over many decades as a direct result of U.S. policies--CIA-sponsored dirty wars, "free trade" deals that displaced masses of farmers, and, most recently, the impact of the U.S.-directed drug war in Mexico that pushed cartels into countries further the south.

As Hannah Fleury wrote last September for

Although Obama initially spoke of assisting the Central American children, that generosity dissipated. Prominent Democrats took the opportunity to compete with Republicans to show their toughness on border issues. Obama asked for $3.7 billion to handle the "crisis," which led to a political stalemate when Republicans refused to release any funds until the border was "secured."

In fact, Obama's proposal was much tougher than the Republican rhetoric made it seem. Of the $3.7 billion, at least one-third was designated to go to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), particularly to "secure" the border and to accelerate the speed of hearings and subsequent deportations.

Obama's message to Central America was clear: "Don't send your children here. If they do make it, they'll get sent back."

"The Obama administration took the most extreme position in regards to these families," Hines told Democracy Now!, "from a panoply of options of what to do with asylum seekers."

In abandoning international norms for treating refugees established at the beginning of the United Nations era, Obama set a precedent for the miserable treatment this year of those fleeing Syria's civil war and violence across the Middle East--as well as the xenophobic scapegoating of Republicans like Donald Trump.

Keep in mind that the number of Central American refugees is far smaller. Germany took in over 1 million refugees last year. The idea that the U.S., a country four times as large as Germany, can't provide resources for 50,000 children who fear for their lives in the land of the birth is absurd.

IF ONE of the current Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination had been the one to dramatically alter U.S. refugee policy, he or she might have done it with more open racism and demagoguery. You can imagine Donald Trump or Ted Cruz showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border and slamming an enormous door shut for a photo op.

But Democrats need to hold on to their base among Latino and liberals, so Obama didn't come out and announce that he was denying refugee status to those who clearly deserve it. Instead, his administration declared that due to the "crisis" at the border, refugees would be subject to "expedited removal"--a rigged process designed to prioritize quick results, generally detention and deportation, over learning the facts that might force the Feds to grant asylum.

According to Human Rights Watch, Border Patrol agents systematically ignored asylum claims, flagging less than 2 percent of Honduran migrants as having "credible fear" of violence, as opposed to over 20 percent of migrants coming from non-Central American countries.

The vast majority of Hondurans were fast-tracked into "expedited removal proceedings," where over 70 percent of children didn't have a lawyer, an American Bar Association (ABA) report found. "Without counsel," says Cecillia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union, "traumatized refugees don't understand what is happening in court and cannot get their legitimate asylum claims heard."

According to the ABA, refugee children who were able to get legal representation had a 73 percent success rate in court, while those without lawyers avoided deportation orders only 15 percent of the time.

Many children and adults without lawyers didn't even show up for their court dates, often because they never received notification--the immigration courts sent notices "late, at the wrong address or not at all," the Los Angeles Times reported. "In some cases, children were ordered to appear in a court near where they were initially detained, rather than where they were living."

These mistakes on the part of ICE didn't stop the Feds from ordering the deportation of over 7,000 children who never had a chance to make their case in court. "What was a border crisis has now become a due-process crisis," Wendy Young, of Kids in Need of Defense, told the New York Times.

Throughout this time, the Obama administration claimed to be offering Central American children its preferred alternative of applying for refugee status in their home countries, but this has turned out to be cruel charade. According to Mother Jones, out of 4,600 children who applied to the "Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program," 11 have been approved.

Compare that to the 83 people who have been killed after being deported back to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, according to the Guardian.

WITH THESE New Year's raids, the Obama administration is showing that it intends to carry its historic betrayal of refugee rights to the bitter end.

"We condemn the Democratic Party for its role in this," said Raúl Ochoa of United We Dream. "They are essentially kidnapping children in middle of night. We call them the Deportation Party...Donald Trump says it, but President Obama does it."

Indeed, Trump rightly drew the same conclusion. "Wow," Trump gleefully boasted on Twitter, "because of the pressure put on by me, ICE TO LAUNCH LARGE SCALE DEPORTATION RAIDS. It's about time!"

Among Democratic candidates for the party's nomination, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley came out against the raids. But the Democrats' most likely nominee Hillary Clinton issued a neutral statement of "concern" before finally coming out against "large-scale raids" a week later.

CASA de Maryland Executive Director Gustavo Torres rightly said this wasn't good enough. "We believe Secretary Clinton needs to speak out very clearly on this," he told Politico, "and if she really wants to be the president of the United States, she needs to distinguish herself more from the Republicans on this issue."

But that's not how politics works in a two-party oligarchy. The seven years of Obama's presidency have shown that the Democrats don't worry about distinguishing themselves on the issue of immigration because the Republicans can always move further to the racist right and the Democrats can claim to be the lesser evil.

Obama has deported well over 2 million people--more than any other president in history--leading activists to label him the "Deporter-in-Chief." But rather than this being a step toward the president's stated goal of winning Republicans to a compromise "comprehensive immigration reform" plan, the border crackdown has only pushed the entire political spectrum to the right--culminating in the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination infamously calling Mexican immigrants "rapists."

Unlike the openly racist right, Obama has tried to hide the cruelty of his mass deportation policy behind false distinctions between "good immigrants" and "bad immigrants." He insists that his immigration policies target "felons, not families. Criminals, not children."

But now, the Deporter-in-Chief is specifically turning on children and families who are fleeing criminals in their home countries--and in the process violating decades of international law and basic standards of human decency.

IMMIGRANT RIGHTS activists aren't taking the raids lying down.

CASA de Maryland and other groups held a protest in Washington, D.C., on December 30, starting outside Democratic Party offices and marching to ICE headquarters.

On a local level, there is widespread anger, but also fear. Immigrant advocacy organizations are scrambling to get out basic "know your rights" information to prepare people for ICE raids and arrange for legal representation. Activists are also reaching out to churches and other religious centers willing to act as sanctuaries for those facing deportation--and organizing "ICE watch" patrols modeled after Copwatch patrols that have documented acts of police brutality and harassment.

These are vital tasks, but a wider and more public response of protest is also necessary. In contrast to her latest statement about the raids, Hillary Clinton has a clear record of support for Obama's cruel and illegal policy toward Central American refugees. Yet she's already lining up support from mainstream Latino leaders.

"The other guys are never going to be president, so they can say anything they want," a national Latino political leader sympathetic to Clinton told Politico. "She knows that as president you have to do something to control the borders, especially if you want to maintain any hope of eventually passing comprehensive immigration reform...But she will figure out how to find a little daylight with Obama."

The protests and organizing against police killings and anti-Black racism shows that there is an alternative to this lesser-evilism logic. Standing up and speaking out has forced all the Democratic candidates to take a different attitude. Thus, many Black Lives Matter activists are rejecting the conciliatory advice of the kind of "leaders" who give anonymous quotes to Politico.

Under frightening conditions, the movement for immigrant justice and dignity must find the strength to do the same.

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