Central American Refugees


Our immigration system is in dire need of attention, funding and fixing; the problems with the immigration system will not be solved by ramping up border security. These children and families at our borders should not be held responsible for a backlogged and poorly functioning legal immigration system in the United States.

Group walks through desert with banner.

The 2016 Migrant Trail Walk, raising awareness for the migrants who die crossing into the U.S. Christina Felschen

There are children and families in crisis at our southern border. Tens of thousands of people have crossed over our borders seeking refuge from escalated violence, rape, assault, exploitation, and gang activity in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many are unaccompanied children or at-risk mothers with children who have fled harsh and dangerous situations. It is difficult to imagine that a child alone or a woman travelling with children would undertake this perilous journey unless the dangers left behind were even more severe.

Global refugee crises stem from deadly conflicts which will continue absent inclusive, political solutions. It is our responsibility to welcome those most in need, offer refuge, and lift up our shared humanity. These people need somewhere to go. We are not safer with higher walls. We're safer with stronger bridges.

Protecting Rights of Asylum-Seekers

These refugees are not sneaking over the border; most of them are presenting themselves to border agents, seeking help. They are a vulnerable population fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the United States and all over Central America, but they are being held in dire circumstances by our federal government.

According to U.S. law, all refugees seeking asylum are entitled to a fair hearing in a timely manner. The Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) outlines additional protections specifically for trafficking victims and children, reiterating their right to establish a “credible fear” of returning to their home countries before a welfare expert, asylum officer, or immigration judge.

TVPRA protections are not being properly applied for all children. Mexican children are not allowed to present their case of “credible fear” to an immigration judge (or other expert) with legal counsel. Instead, border patrol agents interview the children in the detention centers within 12 hours of detaining them, while they are still traumatized from their journeys, and before they have the advice of legal counsel. As a result, most of the children are denied refugee status, and are returned to the violence in their home countries.

Congress should be focusing on strengthening the process for Mexican children, not weakening the protections for all Central American children. Congress should not subject more children to intimate interviews with border patrol agents who have no training in child welfare or social work and are not suited to conduct interviews about trauma, abuse, or sexual assault. The time limit within which a child could make their case should be reasonable and laws should allow for an expedited release from detention centers to relatives or community members.  Congress must not deny more children a fair hearing with access to counsel in the interest of rushing their deportation.

Private Prisons and Immigrant Detention

Seeking asylum is legal under international and U.S. law, which should prevent individuals undergoing legal proceedings from being detained in secure facilities. Unfortunately, the relationship between border control and the private prison industry fuels a high rate of unnecessary detention.

Three of the largest private prison firms spent a combined $45 million on campaign contributions and lobbyists in the last decade. In that time, the number of civil detainees in for-profit facilities (rather than federal facilities) rose almost 40 percent. Undocumented immigration actually dwindled while private incarceration significantly increased. This arbitrary incarceration quota is inhumane and expensive, and yet large private prison corporations continue to profit from it.

With the influx of unaccompanied children at the border, private prison firms are profiting even more. The two largest private prison firms saw a significant stock increase as their facilities were re-purposed into family detention centers.

These refugees are survivors of trauma with a right to legal counsel, but the facilities offer minimal access to legal or mental health services. Lawyer meetings and mental health counseling is often conducted over Skype. Advocates who have spoken with detained families report that prison staff members threaten parents and children with separation if they misbehave and undermine family dynamics by putting parents in powerless positions in front of their children.

NGOs, communities and faith groups have offered to house and care for these refugees, but instead our government continues to use ill-equipped family detention facilities for families awaiting legal proceedings and being processed for deportation.

Asylum-Seekers and the Immigration System

Why don’t people just enter legally and apply for immigration?

Many are pursuing legal asylum or are awaiting other immigration proceedings, but their struggles are illustrative of the brokenness of our wider immigration system. There are millions of immigrants already in this country with no way to legally become citizens. In the meantime they have no protection from exploitative employers, and are fearful of seeking police protection in instances of crime or abuse. Because there are hundreds of thousands of cases awaiting resolution, every day over one thousand people are deported or incarcerated without proper procedure. Families are often separated and sometimes people who have spent over half their lives in the United States are deported to a country they do not remember.

Our immigration system is in dire need of attention, funding and fixing; the problems with the immigration system will not be solved by ramping up border security. These children and families at our borders should not be held responsible for a backlogged and poorly functioning legal immigration system in the United States. It’s out of their control, but it is within our control to push for positive, holistic immigration policies.