White House Promised to Deport 'Felons, Not Families,' So Why Are Unaccompanied Children Getting the Boot?

In the first days of the new year, the U.S. government has begun implementing a plan to deport hundreds of undocumented immigrant families back to Central America. And unsurprisingly, reports of apparent constitutional violations are already rolling in.

According to the Los Angeles Times, agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, arrived at the Georgia home of Joanna Gutierrez over the weekend, presenting her with a warrant for someone she did not know.

“Gutierrez says she told the agents they needed a warrant to enter her home,” the Times wrote. “They told her they didn't, she says, and walked inside, checking every room in the house and waking her children.”

The Times reported that ICE officials detained Gutierrez’s niece, Ana Lizet Mejia, and Mejia’s 9-year-old son, both of whom “entered the U.S. illegally…as part of a wave of Central American migrants seeking refuge from violence in the summer of 2014.”

This isn’t the first time ICE agents have claimed they don’t need a warrant to enter people’s homes for immigration enforcement purposes. Back in 2010, ICE officers reportedly busted into a Nashville residence at night with guns drawn, telling the occupants of the home, “We don't need a warrant, we're ICE…the warrant is coming out of my balls.”

A 2013 legal settlement with nearly two dozen victims of warrantless ICE raids required the agency to adopt reforms intended to stop the practice of armed agents entering the homes of unsuspecting, nonviolent immigrants without proper authorization. But concerns about possible violations of the immigrants’ Fourth Amendment rights have returned to the fore as the new raids commence. On Sunday, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador posted information regarding immigrants’ rights on their Twitter accounts.

“Immigration agents should show you an order signed by a judge to be able to enter your home,” read a tweet from the Salvadoran foreign ministry. “If they do not have one, you do not have the obligation to open the door.”

A tweet from Guatemala’s foreign ministry informed migrants, “Immigration agents have the obligation to respect your fundamental rights and provide decent treatment to you and your family, especially when children are involved.”

Several U.S.-based advocacy organizations have also expressed concern about the planned enforcement actions. A spokesperson for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles called the initiative “negligent, inhumane, and absurd.” The Latin America Working Group pointed out in a fundraising email “that these raids could send families, including children, back to life-threatening circumstances.”

These criticisms are not overblown. Many migrants deported from the United States have been killed upon being returned to their home countries. Forthcoming research by social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy, reported by the Guardian, “identified 45 such cases in El Salvador, three in Guatemala and 35 in Honduras.”

Although President Barack Obama previously promised that his administration would concentrate its immigration enforcement efforts on deporting “felons not families,” an ICE official told the Los Angeles Times that the agency “will continue to pursue the removal of persons who fall within DHS immigration enforcement priorities, including families who are recent unlawful border crossers and who are subject to final orders of removal.”

In a statement defending the detention of 121 individuals in a multi-state series of raids over the weekend, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the actions “should come as no surprise,” claiming he had “said publicly for months individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”

Warrantless raids and deadly violence often serve as the awful bookends of a deportation process fraught with violations of immigrants’ rights and dignity.

Many undocumented migrants, especially children, are shoved through the complexities of the U.S. immigration system with no legal representation. Only a tiny portion of those eligible for asylum ever receive the protection to which they are entitled under U.S. and international law, due in part to a process that “fast tracks” Central American migrants through the deportation process at higher rates than other immigrants.  

Moreover, conditions for the thousands of immigrants held in the dozens of detention centers around the country can be deplorable. A slew of reports over the past several years have described lack of access to adequate food and medical care, as well as various other forms of abuse and neglect at these facilities.

Some observers have speculated that the administration’s decision to ramp up enforcement against recently arrived Central American families could be part of an effort to appease critics of Obama’s previous attempts to protect from deportation millions of undocumented migrants who have lived in the United States for extended periods of time.

However, as one analyst put it, this “sounds like a plausible reason but risky and immoral at the same time.” Targeting families for deportation diverts resources that could be used to track down individuals who might actually pose a danger to society, and it does nothing to stem the increasing flow of migrants from some of the world’s poorest and most violent countries.

In congressional testimony last year, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso argued powerfully for a change of course in U.S. immigration policies. “Our enforcement posture towards children and families fleeing the violence in Central America is akin to firemen arriving at a house fire and locking the doors,” he said. “Instead of locking the doors, we must put out the fire and rescue those inside.”


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