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Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on the Refugee Crisis?

Two out of three Democratic presidential candidates support extending temporary protective status to Central American refugees.

Children sleep on the floor of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection center for undocumented, unaccompanied minors in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18, 2014.

Part of the Series

Democratic presidential front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally joined her party’s primary rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, this week in calling for the Obama administration to end its raids targeting Central American asylum-seeking families for deportation. She also called on the administration to provide attorneys for every child arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents.

Clinton went beyond her previously vague comments about having “concerns” with the administration’s raids Monday night during the Iowa Brown & Black Forum at Drake University, which brings presidential candidates to the stage to discuss issues of racial justice. Clinton avoided answering a question about whether she would, as president, deport children. Instead she promised to “give every person — but particularly children — due process to have their story told.”

The federal government, under current law, is not obligated to provide counsel for migrants in immigration proceedings. A study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse showed that most Central American families did not have legal counsel in immigration court but having representation was crucial to their success.

The Presidential Politics of Deportation Raids

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began its devastating raids at the homes of Central American asylum seekers over New Year’s weekend, and has thus far swept up 121 people, including families and unaccompanied children who made the perilous journey to the United States seeking refuge from skyrocketing rates of murder, rape and gang violence gripping El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Additional raids are expected this month.

The raids and deportations have drawn accolades from Republican presidential candidates, some of whom have also called for barring U.S. entry to Syrian refugees in the days after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, adding to a climate of fear and hostility toward U.S. asylum seekers from both the Middle East and Middle America not witnessed since World War II. Republican front-runner and notorious bigot Donald Trump has even claimed credit for the raid, tweeting, “the Democrats and President Obama are now, because of me, starting to deport people.”

Both Sanders and O’Malley have criticized Clinton for not taking a more forceful stand against the raids, and have called for the United States to extend temporary protective status to Central American asylum seekers that “could provide employment authorization and protection from deportation for a significant portion of these vulnerable people,” according to a statement from the Sanders campaign.

Sanders and O’Malley have written to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson criticizing the policy. Sanders states in his letter that, “Raids are not the answer. We cannot continue to employ inhumane tactics involving rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of immigrant families to address a crisis that requires compassion and humane solutions.”

Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have pledged to use executive actions to provide protections to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers against deportation while simultaneously seeking more comprehensive reform through Congress.

O’Malley was the first presidential candidate to criticize ICE’s deportation raids, the first to write to Secretary Johnson on the matter, and the first to call for temporary protective status for Central Americans from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

While Sanders voted with Senate Democrats to support the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013 and voted for the DREAM Act in 2010, he previously voted against an immigration overhaul bill in 2007, saying the bill would drive down wages for lower-income workers.

Not only has Clinton previously called for deporting Central American children seeking asylum as a means of sending a “responsible message” to deter families from sending their children to the United States — she has also played a role in facilitating the 2009 coup of the democratically elected Honduran president that helped to destabilize the country.

This U.S. foreign policy of regime change in Central America is what the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, says is driving the ongoing refugee crisis and must be reversed in order to stem the flow of asylum seekers into the United States.

Like the Democratic candidates, Stein is calling for temporary protective status for Central American asylum seekers and for full due process in all immigration proceedings.

“My feeling is that [the ICE raids] border on a crime against humanity; I’m not sure they meet the definition of that, but I have to say emotionally, it’s shocking and very disturbing that the Obama administration is raiding and deporting women and children who are fleeing violence and sending them back to a high probability of death,” Stein told Truthout.

Stein visited the immigrant family jail in Karnes City, Texas, in 2015, and was chased off the property by security guards. She sees the ongoing refugee crisis as interconnected with the war on drugs, free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, weapons profiteering and a foreign policy of regime change in Latin America.

The U.S. government is “largely responsible for causing the chaos from which [asylum seekers] are fleeing in the first place,” she said. “The three countries where this crisis is happening are the three countries where we have had major U.S. political and military intervention: the coup in Guatemala and then the death squads that followed, … the more recent coup in Honduras which the U.S. supported against the democratically elected government, and in El Salvador where … death squads trained here in the U.S.”

A January 11 Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll shows Sanders just behind Clinton in Iowa and leading her in New Hampshire, within the margin of error. As Stein is a third-party candidate, she will also compete in the general election no matter which Democrat wins the primary.

Obama’s Deportation Machinery Grinds On

The Southern Poverty Law Center is now investigating potential constitutional Fourth Amendment violations during ICE raids of homes in Atlanta where ICE officers reportedly tricked asylum-seeking families into opening their doors so that officers could enter without a search warrant.

While DHS has maintained that it is targeting families who already have final deportation orders, the fact that some individuals rounded up in the sweep have since been granted stays of deportation — some even being pulled off planes bound for Central America — signals that they have legitimate asylum claims that have been undercut by a lack of access to counsel and other procedural problems.

Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director for the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told Truthout that a coalition of lawyers at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, where most of those apprehended in the raids were taken, have won temporary reprieves for at least 12 people, but that ICE prevented attorneys from accessing the rest.

Abdollahi said only one person they were able to reach was deported, but only because “she walked into the legal trailer an hour before the facility closed, and they deported her the next morning.”

He described legal abuses including families being deported while awaiting a second credible fear interview, a critical step in determining whether their asylum claim is valid, and deportations that occurred after young girls said they were uncomfortable talking about the sexual violence they experienced with male asylum officers. Many of the families granted stays at Dilley, he said, were told they no longer had a right to an attorney, and that they had to sign deportation papers before they could speak with their consulate.

According to one study, since January 2014, 83 people deported from the United States to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador were killed, some within only days of when they returned.

Meanwhile, deportations are speeding up, regardless of whether or not asylum seekers are apprehended in an ICE raid, according to Abdollahi. “[It’s] become tougher just to preserve the basic rights of people in family detention,” he said, “which is why we see … the raids and everything as a distraction, because there was 28 family units picked up, and we’re probably having as many deported every day because of [ICE’s] change in policies that we can’t really respond to because that’s not the focus on everybody’s mind.”

What advocates should be focusing on, he added, is a “call out for ending family detention, because if family detention didn’t exist there would be no way for the government to process families for deportation.”

Abdollahi told Truthout that around 50 to 60 families are being released every day from the Dilley and Karnes family jails, and that most legal aid groups don’t have the capacity to take on additional cases, so finding adequate counsel for families going through immigration and asylum proceedings remains one of the largest procedural hurdles.

Abdollahi says most of the families will be given removal orders. “The real legal resource that’s lacking is all of the amount of energy we’re spending in making sure all the families’ rights are respected in detention, is then creating the vacuum for the lack of legal services for families [who are out] to get an attorney, so it’s sort of like a circle of failure,” he said.

The Dilley and Karnes jails are part of an expansion of privately operated immigrant family jails across South Texas facilitated by the Obama administration as a response to an influx of Central American asylum seekers that reached its peak during the summer of 2014 and has been on the rise again over the past two months. The private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group operate the jails. Conditions at the jails have sparked hunger strikes, and lawmakers who have toured them have likened them to internment camps, calling for their closure.

Despite the fact that the settlement agreement in the 2008 Flores v. Holder case went into effect on October 23, 2015, after a federal court in California granted a motion to enforce the agreement, ICE continues to hold families within the South Texas family jails for up to 20 days on average. The agency is relying on legal language allowing them to hold families to assess their “security risk” when processing more than 120 people a day across the border, defined as a “surge” in the settlement language.

The Flores agreement set minimum national standards for the detention and release of children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or ICE, requiring the agencies to make an effort to release a detained child to a parent, close adult relative or other guardian, if possible. The court ruled that the Obama administration’s policy of detaining families in penal facilities that are not state-licensed, child care facilities violated the settlement.

The next step on the legal front is filing a motion to enforce the court’s ruling stating the reasons why the government is not abiding by the agreement, a move that advocates say is in the works.

“Detention is just not compatible with childhood, and it’s a setup for abuse, misery, and all sorts of health and mental health problems that are being exacerbated in these families that have been traumatized to start with. It’s a national shame,” Stein told Truthout.

While Sanders, O’Malley and Stein continue to call for temporary protective status, something Abdollahi called a solution to the Obama administration’s family detention and deportation policies, Clinton’s reluctance to back protection and employment policies for Central American refugees and her previous support for deportations sets her apart.