As the coauthor, with Senator Ted Kennedy, of the Refugee Act of 1980, I am dismayed at the US government’s iron-fisted response to the refugee crisis on our southwest border. In the last couple of years, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and women with their children have crossed our border with Mexico. Coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the so-called Northern Triangle, these people are primarily fleeing horrific gang violence—violence similar to that found in war zones. In fact, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, with El Salvador not far behind. Failed government institutions, hollowed out by decades of civil war, cannot or will not address this violence—or the unremitting poverty that underlies it.
The US Department of Homeland Security has responded to this crisis mostly with harsh measures intended to deter future inflows. Initially, the DHS jailed the Central American refugees in immigration-detention facilities. The courts halted that practice, since by law children must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services after 72 hours for family reunification or other arrangements. The DHS then fast-tracked the migrants’ asylum proceedings, which provoked serious criticism from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, among others. Few of the migrants were represented by counsel, even though having a lawyer makes an overwhelming difference in the ability to obtain asylum. Just think of children and teenagers on their own trying to master the legal intricacies of asylum proceedings—and in a foreign language, to boot.
In its latest move, the DHS rounded up and deported about 80 mothers and their children, saying they were here illegally—although this determination of “illegality” was based on the much-criticized fast-track adjudications. The deportations prompted protests from the Democratic presidential candidates, members of Congress, immigration advocates, and the US Commission on Civil Rights.
Meanwhile, in order to keep Central American migrants as far away from the US border as possible, the United States has pressured—as well as paid—Mexico to close down its own southern border and to deport any Central Americans found making their way north. This action flies in the face of US treaty obligations that prohibit sending refugees back to likely harm in the countries they’ve fled. We are using Mexico to do our dirty work.
The pressure on Mexico did have an impact: The number of refugees seeking admission to the United States dropped off dramatically for a while, but late last year it began to escalate again.
Our asylum and refugee procedures are based on the 1980 Refugee Act. Its background was the Vietnam War and the massive exodus of more than 1 million refugees from that region. The law was designed to create a permanent commitment by the United States to accept refugees for resettlement each year.
The experience of that exodus is instructive. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled in small boats, risking their lives at sea. It was a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. The nations where these small boats landed—countries of first asylum—were pushing the refugees back out to sea. No long-term solution was in sight. The United States took a leadership role in resolving the problem.