Immigration raids won't fix broken system

Story highlights

  • Raul A. Reyes: Planned "surge" in immigration raids will not deter undocumented migrants
  • Central American families coming north should be protected, not punished, he says

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)We're coming for you.

Raul Reyes
That's the Obama administration's ominous message to Central American women and children who may be in the United States illegally. On Thursday, Reuters reported that the government soon plans to start a 30-day "surge" of immigration raids, to remove families that the administration says did not show up for their court appearances or who have defied orders to leave the country. These raids are meant to deter other Central Americans from making the dangerous journey north.
These raids — planned in response to the doubling of the number of Central American "family units" (women and children) apprehended at our southern border -- reflect a deeply misguided strategy for immigration enforcement. The Obama administration is making targets of women and children who should be protected, not punished. The raids against them will sow distrust and fear in all immigrant communities -- while doing absolutely nothing to help fix our broken immigration system.
To be clear, these Central American mothers and children are a unique subclass of undocumented migrants. Unlike many undocumented immigrants, they are not coming here to work — they are fleeing brutal violence in their home countries. Nor are they sneaking across the border; many cross openly and then present themselves to Border Patrol agents in the hopes that they can make a claim to stay. But instead of viewing them as potential refugees or asylum seekers, the Obama administration simply wants to send them back to fend for themselves.
Defending the raids, on Friday White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "If this serves to discourage people from considering to make this journey, that would be a good thing." Still, nothing can change people's minds when they are literally fleeing for their lives.
The women and children targeted by the Obama administration are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three countries that regularly rank among the world's most dangerous nations. In these countries, forced gang conscription, sexual violence and homicides are a fact of daily life; one El Savadoran dies every hour due to violence.
Those people considering making the trip north are not being lured by the prospect of U.S. jobs. They are risking everything for the possibility of safety and survival; no deterrence strategy can change that fact.
And it isn't just that the raids won't have the desired deterrence effect; they may compound the violence these already-traumatized individuals have to face. Make no mistake about it, proposed raids like these can play out as violent home invasions. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, immigration agents in Atlanta "trampled legal rights, subjected mothers and children to terrifying and unnecessary police encounters, and [tore] families apart." Immigration agents often failed to show a warrant for entry, or to ask for permission to enter a home as required by law. They also rounded up people already in compliance with immigration court regulations, such as wearing ankle monitors or attending their court hearings.
In North Carolina, agents allegedly picked up young people on their way to school. Other ICE agents reportedly conducted a "sting operation" in a church in Illinois, which is a violation of government protocol against entering "sensitive locations."
These are actions that some might associate with a Trump administration, with his call for mass deportations of the undocumented, yet they are happening on President Obama's watch. To their credit, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and leading Democratic lawmakers have rightfully denounced the planned raids.
Far from making our communities safer, these operations have the effect of terrorizing Latino and immigrant neighborhoods. That means people will be less likely to report domestic abuse, come forward as witnesses to crimes, or cooperate with police investigations.
True, the U.S. must protect its borders and enforce its immigration laws. However, the people targeted by these raids are not undocumented immigrants who came here to work or to conduct illegal business. The government's own data shows that the overwhelming majority of Central American detainees have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution at home, which means that they could make a case for asylum. Eighty-three U.S. deportees to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador reportedly have already been murdered in their homelands.
In addition, one significant reason that Central Americans get placed in deportation proceedings and face removal in the first place is their lack of access to legal representation. These are non-English speakers with limited education left to navigate our byzantine legal system on their own. As the New York Times has reported, it is not uncommon for children to face an immigration judge alone; one immigration judge says that 3-year-olds can defend themselves in court. Consider that of the removal orders issued for the expedited asylum cases from Central America since 2014, 86% lacked legal representation.
These Central American families flee unspeakable violence at home to find themselves alienated and disenfranchised here. How ironic that our President, who has been so concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees, seems to be willing to ignore a humanitarian crisis much closer to home.
The Obama administration must rethink its proposed immigration raids. Central American mothers and children represent a refugee crisis, not an immigration issue. They deserve compassion -- not expulsion.