New York Times (Editorial)
April 20, 2016
The Supreme Court heard arguments this week over the Obama administration’s use of prosecutorial discretion to protect some unauthorized immigrants from deportation. It is a momentous debate about presidential power, and the lives of millions hang in the balance. Lost in the hubbub is a parallel struggle, taking place far from Washington, in places like Georgia and North Carolina. It involves the administration’s efforts to crack down on recent migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Though their numbers are relatively small, the way they are being treated poses a critical moral test for the administration — a test it is failing.
Those three countries are among the most violent corners of our hemisphere. El Salvador is the world’s murder capital. Honduras and Guatemala are not far behind. All are plagued by an epidemic of killings of women and children — by gang and drug warfare and by political oppression. The United States remains a rich and stable neighbor, more than capable of helping to stabilize the region and of welcoming and protecting the desperate people who have fled by the thousands to the Texas border.
Instead, it offered Operation Border Guardian, a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against. It began in January and lasted a month, but its damage is still being felt. Among its tens of thousands of targets were more than 300 recent migrants from Central America, youths who crossed the border without their parents and turned 18 in the United States, thus losing some of the protections granted to unaccompanied minors. After they lost their cases to win asylum or other protection and were ordered deported by immigration courts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement hunted them down.
In a country that has been losing its bearings on immigration, this effort taints all who touch it, from the ICE director, Sarah Saldaña, to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, to President Obama himself.
Mr. Johnson defended the operation last month. “We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities,” he said. But human rights advocates have been pushing back, saying the administration is treating a humanitarian emergency like a border-security problem, and should be doing far more to protect those who have sought to escape horrific violence back home. Congress recently approved a $750 million Central American aid package to save lives in the region. But more arrivals are expected, even as those already here struggle to remain. The largely volunteer effort to help them navigate immigration court is a fragile patchwork, with too many cases, too few lawyers and too little justice.
While legal advocates have been scrambling, ICE has been running amok, raiding homes and public spaces in search of deportable youths. In North Carolina and Georgia, where organized advocacy is sparse, the dragnet has been unusually aggressive. Agents seized students at home and on their way to school. Appalled teachers, students and community leaders have been signing petitions and marching, pleading for justice and putting a human face on the victims of coldblooded policies: Wildin Acosta, still in detention, as his appeal proceeds. Kimberly Pineda-Chavez, arrested on her way to school. Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, arrested at his school bus stop. Jose Alfaro-Lainez, deported to El Salvador on April 13. Jaime Arceno-Hernandez, scheduled to be deported on April 27.
Students are being locked up while they appeal deportation orders, though they pose no threat of violence or flight. Ms. Saldaña has rebuffed pleas for mercy, saying the administration — which has flown more than 28,000 people back to Central America since October — needs “to send a message” that the borders are closed to illegal immigration. But pleading for refuge is not illegal. More than 100 members of Congress have denounced the raids. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pledged not to deport children if they win the presidency.
The administration, while fighting to protect a humane immigration policy in the Supreme Court, should work just as hard to protect the lives of traumatized migrants. Instead, it has been placing them in misery and peril.
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