Report Highlights “Fast-Track” Deportations of Central American Refugees

Human Rights Watch released a report last week highlighting the apparently systemic failure of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to properly screen Central American migrants, particularly Hondurans, for “credible” or “reasonable” fear of returning to their countries of origin.

According to data obtained from CBP via a Freedom of Information Act request, “the vast majority of Hondurans, at least 80 percent, are placed in fast-track expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings.” The report suggests that this practice may exclude many migrants with legitimate asylum requests from pursuing their claim past even the most preliminary stages of the process.

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For the report, HRW interviewed 35 Central American migrants who were either in detention in the U.S. or had recently been deported to Honduras, the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region on the planet. As the graphic above shows, the vast majority of migrants from the “Northern Triangle” countries (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) were deported under expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings. Moreover, as the organization notes, “only a minuscule minority, 1.9 percent [of Hondurans], got flagged for credible fear assessments by CBP.”

Expedited processing used to be performed only at official U.S. border crossing checkpoints, but in recent years it has been used for undocumented migrants detained pretty much anywhere. Citing a drop in the proportion of migrants granted permission to pursue their asylum claims by US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers, HRW suggests that new, more stringent benchmarks for establishing “credible” or “reasonable” fear instituted in February 2014 may have “inappropriately raise[ed] the burden of proof required” at this early stage of the asylum-seeking process.

Of the migrants HRW interviewed, fewer than half of the detainees who told Border Patrol officials about their fear of returning to Honduras were referred for further assessment to determine whether their fear was “credible” or “reasonable,” despite U.S. law requiring that such cases be referred to a USCIS asylum officer.

Some interviewees reported lacking access to competent legal counsel and even being ignored, given misinformation or pressured by U.S. immigration officials to not fight deportation or to drop asylum claims. The title of HRW’s report, “You don’t have rights here,” comes from a statement allegedly uttered by a Border Patrol agent to one eventual deportee, referred to by the pseudonym “Mateo S.” Mateo described a CBP agent attempting to force him to sign papers consenting to his own deportation. When he refused, Mateo said, “[The agent] told me I was deported anyway. He said he ‘had the law in his hand and he was going to sign for me.'”

Mateo had fled from Honduras after falling victim to a local extortion racket that targeted his business. When he could no longer afford the “war tax,” gangsters tried to kidnap his son. “I sent my son and my wife to the United States,” he told HRW. “Once I knew they were safe, I fled too.” Despite expressing a credible fear of being targeted by the gang if returned to Honduras, Mateo was deported on September 9, 2014.

Another Honduran deportee, Marlon J., described being chosen at random as the victim of a gang initiation ritual and getting shot seven times in the back for absolutely no reason. Unfortunately, he did not feel he could turn to the state for protection or redress. “Here in Honduras, you can’t file a police complaint,” according to Marlon, “because after that the gang comes and finishes your family.” Roberto L., also deported to Honduras in September, said he had witnessed the murder of his mother and that his life is in danger “at a national level.” “I’m just going to be here [in Honduras] for three weeks,” he said. “Then I’ll try [to cross into the U.S.] again.”

Human Rights Watch notes that the group “was unable to corroborate claims about the specific dangers interviewees said they faced in Honduras.” Nevertheless, the organization writes that “[t]he failure of CBP and other US immigration agencies to identify asylum seekers raises concerns that the US government is violating its international human rights obligations to examine asylum claims before returning them to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”

The report continues:

“Migrants who were not referred for a credible fear interview told Human Rights Watch that interviews by CBP are brief and focused on explaining additional consequences of deportation, such as bars to return for set periods of time, rather than exploring their fear of return…The migrants we interviewed said that the CBP officers whom they encountered seemed singularly focused on removing them from the United States, which impeded their ability to make their fears known.”

HRW notes that “DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has referred to [migrant] detention as part of an “aggressive deterrence strategy.” Families, including women and children, are often placed in long-term detention even when there is no legal requirement to do so. As I wrote in a previous post:

Being detained after entering the United States, especially for children, can be just as traumatic as any other part of the trip. The infrastructure to deal with the recent influx of juvenile migrants simply doesn’t exist. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 1,366 children were illegally held in adult facilities for more than 72 hours. Conditions at overcrowded youth facilities sometimes border on inhumane. A number of migrants’ rights groups recently filed a joint complaint with DHS alleging extremely disturbing physical, psychological and sexual abuses suffered by unaccompanied migrant children at the hands of Border Patrol authorities.

However, the Obama administration seems to have acknowledged the likely failure of its ‘deterrence’ strategy – which has included everything from mass deportations to a CBP-funded song about the horrifying dangers of riding the freight train known as “The Beast” through Mexico. To wit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced plans to build a 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center” in Dilley, TX to be operated on a for-profit basis by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The Texas Observer reported that the” massive facility would double the existing federal capacity for immigrant families…”

[Critics] point to the failed experiment with detaining immigrant families at T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a CCA-run facility about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The Obama administration removed families from the former jail in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, accounts of children suffering psychological trauma and a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

Locking up more women and children is hardly a reasonable solution, but there have been some positive developments regarding immigration policy recently. In a first, the Board of Immigration Appeals recently ruled that a Guatemalan women who was the victim of severe domestic abuse was eligible for asylum. The Obama administration also just announced that it would expedite a family reunification program that will help thousands of Haitians join their family members in the U.S. and earlier announced a similar initiative targeted at Central American families.

These are steps in the right direction, but sending these refugees back to the countries from which they are fleeing is neither ethical nor pragmatic. Neither is locking them in “iceboxes.” Violence, corruption and political repression have been on the rise in the Northern Triangle for some time. So have the numbers of migrants from those countries attempting to cross the U.S. border. It’s unproductive and potentially illegal to turn away legitimate asylum-seekers – not to mention immoral, especially when considering the United States’ responsibility for so much of the mess Central America.

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