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“Women, kids fleeing horrors”

The following Opinion was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on February 15, 2016:

Opinion: Women, kids fleeing horrors

Allison Reynolds-Berry is executive director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center. Don Sherman and Mike Brown contributed.

While the undocumented population overall has decreased in the United States, the number of families and unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – Central America’s Northern Triangle – increased has dramatically in the past two years.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, these families are primarily made up of women and children refugees who are fleeing “one of the most dangerous places on earth” with “epidemic levels of violence, including gender-based violence.”

In the Northern Triangle, drugs from Colombian trafficking organizations are handed over for shipment into the United States. Cartels that control trafficking routes in the Northern Triangle profit from America’s insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.

Meanwhile, police and military in the Northern Triangle are often complicit with the criminal organizations, and governments are too weak and corrupt to prosecute crimes and protect their citizens.

Neighborhoods are subjected to a “war” tax. Boys are forcibly recruited to gangs. Girls are coerced to serve as gang girlfriends. Kidnapping, sex slavery and extortion are real threats. Dismembering children is a means of terror. Requesting police protection might be punished with murder.

A perilous journey across Mexico to possible safety in the United States looks a lot less terrifying than the cruel war zone of the Northern Triangle.

Under our law, anyone fleeing persecution and violence has the right to make a claim for asylum. We stand by the principle that we will not return an immigrant to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.

Our treatment of these traumatized women and children fails to abide by our laws and our values of decency, fairness and humanity. We are punishing the persecuted, whom we have a legal and moral duty to protect, claiming they are a threat to border security. And we may be deporting some to their death.

The Department of Homeland Security detains mothers and children in prison-like facilities in Texas to deter future immigration from Central America.

“Detention interferes with individuals’ ability to assert claims to asylum, access (legal) counsel, and harms the physical and mental health of children as they struggle with life behind bars and the uncertainties of indefinite detention,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Detainees face expedited removal to their home countries, typically in a matter of days, unless they can pass preliminary screening interviews – for credible and reasonable fear – to identify asylum-seekers. This flawed process screens out many with legitimate asylum claims. Ironically, special laws protect Cubans, who don’t have to prove fear of persecution to gain asylum in the United States.

Detainees who pass preliminary screening can present their claim in immigration court. Without legal representation and other due process protections, this part of the process can also screen out those who deserve asylum.

In early January, DHS picked up 121 mothers and children and quickly deported at least 77, sparking wide fear in immigrant communities, including our neighbors in Cincinnati.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson claimed that all 121 women and children “have been issued final orders of removal by an immigration court, and have exhausted appropriate legal remedies.”

However, contrary to Johnson’s assurances, the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered DHS to stop deportation of 33 of the 121 detainees after pro bono legal teams intervened. The board found the women and children were fleeing extreme domestic violence or targeted for recruitment, kidnapping, assault or extortion by transnational criminal organizations.

Many of the 77 mothers and children who were deported likely had valid claims for relief, but they were deported without full due process. We hope and pray for their safety.

Contact IJPC (IJPCcincinnati.org) to advocate for women and children from Central America.