The ICE raids on undocumented immigrants with “final” orders of removal continue to paralyze immigrant communities throughout the country with fear. As many as 121 asylum seekers were taken into custody in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Deportation of 33 of the 121 has already been halted for due process violations, but dozens more were deported, the legality of their deportation remaining unresolved. ICE raids are hardly new – but what is new is the deliberate targeting of asylum seekers, including children. In his January 4 statement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote, “…our borders are not open to illegal migration. If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.” Apparently, this is pursuant to a directive to secure the border.

This is misleading political rhetoric. Asylum seekers are not the same as “illegal migrants.” Equating them to national security threats or felons is disingenuous. Moreover, the border is not going to be secured by removing asylum seekers fleeing horrific violence in Central America. Finally, there are frequent and serious due process violations underlying these ostensibly “final” orders of deportation.

One of my clients narrowly escaped forced recruitment into the Mara 18 gang. He slept in sugarcane fields for 2 weeks before making his way to the United States. Furious, gang members hacked his brother to pieces with a machete. Another young woman was raped by an MS-13 gang member who told her she “belonged” to him, to do with what he pleased, and there was no one who could protect her. She crossed the border 7 months pregnant. 
These people – like many who came in 2014 – became refugees. Our asylum laws are meant to allow people to come to our border and seek protection. Seeking asylum at the border is not “illegal migration” – lumping asylum seekers in with “illegal migrants” as if these people were coming in for a job interview is nonsensical. None of my clients – and very few of the asylum seekers who are now being targeted by ICE – are going to be deterred by these psyops.

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced sweeping executive actions on immigration. One of these was a superseding memorandum revising the prioritization of removals. Priority 1 is national security threats, gang members, felons, and recent entrants without criminal records. (Which one doesn’t belong?) The 2016 raids focus only on recent entrants, wrongly stigmatizing them for seeking asylum, and equating them to Priority 1 national security threats, gang members, and felons. Yet ICE uses “precautions” due to the “sensitive nature” of removing high-threat “Priority 1” families with children.

Tying asylum seekers to border security is a meaningless political soundbite. These are people who pose the least threat but are the most vulnerable. A month before news of the raids, Secretary Johnson said, “We must not forget that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are women, children and families who are fleeing the very same terrorism and violence we are concerned about.” And he is right: my Syrian clients tell stories that mirror what I hear from my Central American ones: people targeted by a criminal regime for daring oppose them in any way, including helping victims of the brutality, participation in a peaceful protest, or even not supporting the regime strongly enough. My Syrian clients have been beaten, detained, besieged, and seen their family members and children killed with impunity. Is there a different standard for Central Americans? 

There are no agreed upon benchmarks on border security. John McCain tried once, saying only “I’ll know it when I see it.” Immigration restrictionists have long argued that the border must be secured before there can be any Congressional fix of our broken system. But providing legal means to entry is what will help secure the border. Why would anyone pay $10,000 to a coyote and risk his life if there was a way to come in legally at a fraction of the cost? Less people entering illegally means it’s easier and cheaper to know who’s coming in and keep unwanted people out.

But our enforcement-first system instead strains under the pressure, and the the legal machinery meant to guarantee due process breaks down. ICE officers routinely pressure asylum seekers to waive their rights. Most are not represented by lawyers – which, when coupled with language, cultural, and educational barriers, leaves them helpless. Improper servicecoercion, and woefully inadequate legal representation are some of the main reasons these orders are rescinded. So these “final” orders of deportation aren’t as “final” as they seem.

Ultimately, this is a misguided and ill-advised move by DHS. 146 congressmen wrote to President Obama on January 12 telling him as much. Regardless of the text of the memo, sensible prioritization means going after the dangerous people first – especially those who havehad their fair day in court. For every child getting locked up and deported, a person with a serious criminal record walks free. 

Hassan M. Ahmad, Esq.

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