Obama Urged to Free Asylum-Seekers Before Trump Takes Office

  • About 4,000 women and children are in jail-like facilities
  • President-elect has promised to deport millions from U.S.

President Barack Obama speaks on Nov. 19, 2016, in Lima.

Immigration advocates are asking the Obama administration to release thousands of detained Central American women and children who want asylum in the U.S., citing concerns that Donald Trump will deport them after his inauguration in January.

Representatives of groups including the Women’s Refugee Commission and the American Immigration Lawyers Association met with White House officials last week to discuss a host of immigration issues, including the fate of about 4,000 Central American detainees, some as young as two years old, who have fled violence in their home countries. They’re housed in jail-like facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania, some for more than a year, as they wait for the government to process their asylum pleas.

Immigration advocates want the president to either end the practice of detaining families altogether, as they’ve been requesting for years, or direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to release families with a notice to appear before a judge on their own recognizance.

The plight of the Central American refugees, who fled violence and gangs in their home countries, is one of several 11th-hour immigration conundrums Obama faces as he prepares for Trump to enter the White House. The Republican campaigned on promises to crack down on undocumented immigrants and to build a wall on the Mexican border, and immigration advocates fear a government that has struggled under Obama to humanely handle a crush of asylum-seekers at the southern border will turn markedly more hostile under his successor.

“The family detention infrastructure is something that President Obama built, and unless he tears it down in the next two months this will be part of his presidential legacy,” said Carl Takei, staff attorney at the the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

DACA Applicants

Separately, advocates for about 750,000 young undocumented immigrants granted protection from deportation under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, have pressed the White House to ensure Trump can’t use data compiled by the program to instead target and remove the people from the country. House Democrats called on Obama last week to issue a presidential pardon for the immigrants, who were brought into the country as children and have grown up as "Americans," Obama said in Nov. 14 news conference.

The White House said last week that the president’s clemency power can’t be used to confer legal status on undocumented residents. Pete Boogaard, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on whether the administration has the authority to release the asylum seekers.

Trump is poised to inherit one of the worst humanitarian crises in a generation along the U.S.-Mexico border. Starting in 2014 scores of women and children fleeing gang violence in Central America began presenting themselves to unprepared border officials along the southern U.S. border. Generally under U.S. law, asylum seekers who can show a "credible fear" of returning to their home countries are entitled to a removal hearing before a judge.

Facing a lack of beds, the Obama administration raced to open additional family detention centers to house large numbers of children, who are required by law to be held in the least restrictive conditions possible.

Specter of Sessions

Trump has promised to crack down on undocumented border crossers while also restricting refugees from terror-prone countries, but he has yet to articulate a policy for the thousands of asylum seekers who enter the U.S. each year. Trump’s top immigration advisers, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican who Trump plans to nominate as attorney general, have argued that Obama has been too easy on migrants.

“Instead of removing illegal immigrants, the President has expended enormous time, energy, and resources into settling newly arrived illegal immigrants throughout the United States,” Sessions wrote in a January 2015 “immigration handbook” for Republicans.

The crisis shows no sign of abating. In fiscal 2016 the U.S. apprehended a record 78,000 family members, mainly from Central America, on the southwest border, according to government figures. A record 41,000 immigrants are currently detained in U.S. facilities and half are asylum-seekers, said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group that seeks an end to family detention.  

The three family-detention facilities have a combined capacity of about 3,600 beds. The Department of Homeland Security is currently evaluating bids to add another 2,500 beds. Southwest Key Programs, an Austin-based nonprofit that operates shelters for unaccompanied migrant children, has looked at turning an abandoned Wal-Mart store along the border into a “humane shelter” for families seeking asylum, according to Cindy Casares, a spokeswoman for the group.

Advocates have long called on Obama to scrap the facilities because of inhumane conditions, including reports of babies being dressed in prison jumpsuits and punishment meted out to children for playing too noisily. The advocates believe the Central American asylum seekers pose a low flight risk and they recommend alternatives to detention, including wearing ankle monitors to ensure they show up for their court dates.

‘Added Urgency’

Under Trump, the advocates fear, the government could broaden the use of expedited removal -– fast-track deportation proceedings that take place without a judge -- a practice that is already being used more frequently with asylum seekers.

“There is an added urgency to make sure that the families that are here get an opportunity to be heard in front of a judge,” said Ben Johnson, executive director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “There is some concern that those families under the new administration will never have that chance.”

Panic is meanwhile rising along the border as migrants have digested the news of Trump’s election. Immigrants staying in cramped shelters or church basements are trying to leave the border region for cities farther north such as Baltimore or New York, from where they believe it is harder to be deported, said Michael Seifert, an activist with the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

“There’s literally not enough commercial bus space to get the people out,” he said. “They’re all terrified.”

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