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Migrant surge poses challenge for U.S.: Who’s a refugee, who isn’t?

In this June 18, 2014, photo, children who’d been detained at the U.S. border slept at a processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Fiscal year 2016 is on track to set a record for the number of families from Central America trying to cross the U.S. border.
In this June 18, 2014, photo, children who’d been detained at the U.S. border slept at a processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Fiscal year 2016 is on track to set a record for the number of families from Central America trying to cross the U.S. border. AP

U.S. Border Patrol agents will apprehend more family members entering the United States along the Southwest border this fiscal year than they did in 2014, when a massive surge of Central Americans found the Obama administration detaining thousands of mothers and their children.

Newly released U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show that while overall apprehension numbers are down from two years ago, the number of family members being apprehended will almost certainly surpass the total of two years ago.

Both family apprehensions and detentions of unaccompanied children have shown dramatic increases over last year’s totals – with family detentions nearly doubling and the number children traveling without parents increasing 52 percent.

Those increases raise serious questions about the Obama administration’s strategy to curb the flow through a combination of immigration enforcement and humanitarian assistance.

“It has been a failure, because people are still coming,” said Amy Fischer, the policy director for the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Many migrants from Central America cite violence in their homelands as the reason for seeking refuge in the United States. The Obama administration has created a variety of programs, including aid to Central American governments, to try to tamp down that violence. The administration acknowledged over the summer that efforts have been “insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims.”

A total of 68,445 family members were apprehended in 2014, when a surge of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty raced into the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

This year, with one month left in the fiscal year, more than 68,080 family members have been apprehended. With apprehensions averaging 6,189 a month, the annual total is certain to be a record. No month this year has seen fewer than 3,000 family members detained. In August, Border Patrol agents apprehended 9,359 family members, the highest yet of the year.

If you are fleeing violence, if you’re fleeing your burning house, it doesn’t matter whether someone said, ‘Don’t come, because we’ll punish you for it.’You’re saving your life.

Carol Anne Donohoe, immigration lawyer

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are three of the most violent countries in the world.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned last October that women from Central America would continue to flee their countries because of the escalating tide of violence, including domestic violence and rape, fueled by sophisticated transnational gangs.

The number of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States has grown nearly eightfold in the last six years. Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua and Costa Rica also have seen an increase in Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans seeking refugee status, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

Federal officials have an obligation under national and international law to protect the vulnerable. The challenge is determining who qualifies as a bona fide refugee and who has come for family or economic reasons.

The surge has exacerbated an already long backlog of hundreds of thousands who are awaiting cases in immigration court. To receive asylum in the United States, applicants must prove they have well-founded fears of persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” These cases can take years to resolve.

Homeland Security officials said they continued to monitor migration trends and were working aggressively to “deter unauthorized migration, while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection.”

Fresno immigration attorney Lazaro Salazar explains how advance parole works under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan, President Barack Obama’s reprieve program for young undocumented immigrants.

The White House reached an agreement with Costa Rica in July to host up to 200 Central American refugee applicants while the United States assessed their asylum claims. It was part of a larger package of measures put in place to protect migrants that included expanding the number of people who can apply to the U.S. refugee program for children. The administration also worked with Congress to secure $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fight poverty and violence as well as reform their governments.

We have a finite level of resources that we can dedicate to these huge humanitarian situations.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson

President Barack Obama has authorized spending up to $70 million to meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs related to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.”

But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has made it clear that deportations of Central Americans will continue despite recognition of the crisis.

“As long as we have border security and as long as our borders are not open borders,” Johnson told reporters last month. “We have to be consistent with our priorities.”

Critics find it hypocritical for the administration to say that those from Central America are potential refugees while it conducts immigration raids on Central Americans, detaining them in family detention centers and deporting them to the same violent region.

There are three U.S. family detention centers where women can be held with their children while their asylum cases are heard. Nearly two dozen women held with their children at the Berks County Residential Center in Central Pennsylvania launched a hunger strike last month to protest their and their children’s long detentions, some of which have lasted more than a year.

Carol Anne Donohoe, a Pennsylvania-based immigration lawyer who represents several of the Central American women at the Berks center, said the women were fighting for their lives. She said that if the administration truly recognized the situation as a humanitarian crisis, it would initiate temporary protective status for the families.

If you are fleeing violence, if you’re fleeing your burning house, it doesn’t matter whether someone said, ‘Don’t come, because we’ll punish you for it.’ You’re saving your life,” Donohue said.

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