Vice President Biden’s widely reported claim, late last week, that the Administration has “embraced a fundamentally different approach” to the “hard trade-offs” posed by the Central America migration crisis is either ill-informed or disingenuous. Is he unaware of the tragedy, also widely reported over the past several weeks, being played out at the Berks County PA detention facility where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has incarcerated mothers and children seeking asylum from death threats and extreme violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador?
These women, many of whom have been jailed with their children for a year, have carried on a hunger strike to protest conditions that trauma experts agree generate PTSD-like reactions and delayed development in young children. Detention officials have responded by threatening to take their kids away.
Vice President Biden claims that the administration has a “two-track approach” to address the causes and symptoms of the refugee crisis. The two tracks that are most apparent are what the administration claims and what it actually does.
Despite the Vice President’s rhetoric, the Obama administration has been engaged in the most aggressive immigration enforcement policies in recent history, which include the revival and expansion of family detention (a hideous and traumatizing system of jails designed to lock up women and children and discourage other asylum seekers), mass deportations, and family separation on an unprecedented scale. This is a morally bankrupt strategy that treats immigrants and asylum seekers as criminals and commodities.
While the Vice President suggests that migration from Central America “is a complex problem with no easy answers”, the solutions posited by the Administration appear to contradict this superficial claim. Refugee resettlement initiatives, like the Central American Minors (CAM) program, for example, fail to provide those in immediate danger with anything close what the administration claims — a “safe and legal” (or more recently “safe and orderly”) alternative to the dangerous migration route through Mexico. While CAM has helped a limited few, it has also trapped at-risk minors in a slow and dangerous in-country procedure that contradicts their right to seek asylum.
The Administration holds up its new Protection Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Costa Rica and the UNHCR as an answer to the dire situation facing Central American refugees. However, the UNHCR has noted that this processing option will likely only benefit 200 people at a time and that it will take between 6-8 months to process each applicant. This represents less than 1% of the almost 26,000 unaccompanied children and 29,700 family units (mostly mothers and young children) that were apprehended at the US border seeking asylum in the first six months of this year.
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The administration claims to be working with “regional partners like Mexico” to advance it’s commitment to “respect the human dignity of migrants and give full consideration to their refugee claims under the law.” Again, the facts contradict the claims: The U.S. has provided financial backing to Mexico over the past year to undertake an expansive crackdown on Central American migrants entering the country through its southern border.
The two governments have colluded financially and logistically to deny access to protection for asylum seekers, resorting to mass interdiction and summary deportation, prolonged and punitive detention, and the systematic denial of due process in the asylum system.
There is now strong evidence that the vast majority of those arrested during the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raids in the Unites States itself earlier this year had strong asylum claims that were only denied due to lack of access to counsel, expedited asylum processing known as the “rocket docket,” and other due process violations.
Faced with an unprecedented surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric, the United States increasingly treats migrants and asylum seekers as pawns in a political chess match rather than human beings with dignity and fundamental rights. Biden’s recognition of the “inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants” is an empty gesture, considering that the administration, including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, has repeatedly criminalized, if not demonized, asylum-seekers in an effort to appease immigration hardliners.
If this administration truly wants to honor what Vice President Biden calls “our cherished history as a nation of immigrants,” it needs to treat asylum-seeking adults and children with respect and dignity while recognizing their genuine right to pursue safety and freedom in our country.