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David Leopold says it would be a huge mistake to deport Central American refugees back to a cauldron of violence

Most are eligible for asylum under U.S. law, he says

Editor’s Note: David Leopold, founder and principal of an immigration law firm in Cleveland that carries his name, is the past president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

The Obama administration is planning a series of ICE raids beginning in January to ferret out and deport thousands of Central American immigrants who entered the United States in 2014 after fleeing rampant violence in their home countries, according to The Washington Post.

An immigration judge ordered these families deported either because their asylum claims were denied or they didn’t appear for their immigration court hearings. The administration’s plan is shocking, outrageous and just plain wrong. This is something we would expect from a President Trump, not President Obama.

David Leopold

If the raids take place, the President would appear to be reacting – actually overreacting – to a recent spike in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied children to the United States. He apparently also wants to deter others from making the arduous, life-threatening trip north to the United States and to show that his administration is adhering to its November 14, 2014, immigration enforcement priorities that, in addition to criminals and national security threats, target noncitizens who have entered the U.S. or been ordered deported after January 1, 2014.

But It’s morally repugnant to send Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents into local communities to arrest and detain vulnerable families, including women and children, and deport them to places where their lives will be threatened by unspeakable violence; countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where gang and drug violence force innocent families to flee north to the United States in search of a haven. Reports such as one in the Guardian recount that undocumented immigrants deported to Central America have faced unspeakable violence, even murder, just days after their return.

We know that most are eligible for asylum or other forms of protection under the law because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data show that an overwhelming percentage of the mothers and children detained at family detention centers in the United States are able to show a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries.

Other Central Americans ordered deported in absentia may not have had a fair chance to plead their asylum case because they did not get adequate information from government bureaucrats explaining their obligation to go to court. Clearly, being ordered deported under those circumstances is not due process, and families should not be summarily removed from the United States for failure to appear at an immigration court hearing.

Nor can it be said that deporting those whose asylum cases have been denied by a judge is any more reasonable or fair. Central Americans fortunate enough to make their case in court with a lawyer are burdened with complicated and exacting legal standards that govern asylum law.

An immigration judge’s refusal to grant a person’s asylum claim hardly means he or she does not face serious, life-threatening harm in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. That could include, for example, a woman whose asylum claim has been denied by an immigration judge after she fled gang and drug violence to save her children’s lives.

The bottom line is that for many Central Americans, deportation means the forcible return to a cauldron of life-threatening violence.

At a minimum, the use of ICE raids to execute this plan should be immediately and unequivocally scrapped. The specter of armed ICE agents invading communities early in the morning harkens back to the darkest days of chaotic immigration enforcement. Raids like the ruthless ones inflicted on Painesville, Ohio, in 2007 and Postville, Iowa, in 2008 destroy families, ruin economies and erode the community trust essential to effective local law enforcement.

Faced with the fear that they or a relative might be deported, undocumented immigrants may think twice about reporting serious crimes like domestic violence to local law enforcement. Immigration raids targeting families, including women and children, should be assigned to the dustbin of history.

What’s needed now from the President is leadership, not brutal enforcement policies targeting vulnerable families. Understanding the administration’s legitimate concern about preventing a new border surge, including its concern that those Central Americans who flee north to the United States face a violent and life-threatening journey, we must insist that Obama do better than resort to ICE raids to force the immediate removal of vulnerable families.

Rather than sending families back to the very danger and violence they’ve fled, the administration should work toward a comprehensive regional solution to the humanitarian crisis that’s causing the migration and devote resources to improving the economic and social situation in Central America.

In the meantime, vulnerable families, whether or not they’ve had their day in immigration court, must be provided temporary haven, not threatened with roundups and deportation of the sort envisioned by the likes of Donald Trump.

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