Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses... No More?

Our Government Continues to Blatantly Ignore Horrors of Families' Plight

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security rang in the New Year by casting a nationwide dragnet targeting Central American asylum seekers for deportation to their home countries. In addition to the raids, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson likewise announced an "expanded messaging campaign" that would "educate those considering the journey north... about the dangerous realities of that journey."

He makes it sound as though they have a choice.

The truth is that asylum seekers hailing from the Northern Triangle of Central America are fleeing circumstances far more atrocious -- and more hopeless -- than a perilous north-bound journey to the U.S.

As the poet Warsan Shire said of another group of refugees, "no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."

According to the State Department's own assessments, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have a crime rating of "critical," which their hapless, corrupt, under-resourced and underfunded police forces are helpless to remedy. Transnational criminal gang violence is epidemic. Indeed, Honduras and El Salvador are in a macabre competition to see which is the most murderous nation in the world.

But the data don't portray the true horror of these families' plight.

Many of the women fleeing Central America aren't trying to save their children. They are trying to save their remaining children.

Women like July Perez, for example, whose 14-year-old son Anthony was beaten, burned, tortured and suffocated to death for refusing to join a Honduran gang. (Perez had already lost a brother, whose dismembered body had been left to rot in a ditch.)

The "unaccompanied minors" are fleeing a similar fate. Remaining in their home countries means facing circumstances in which they are quite literally required to kill or be killed. Those who refuse to join a gang risk sharing the fate of eleven year-old David, a promising student who was stabbed to death, dismembered, and buried in a shallow grave in an abandoned field.

And while gang violence is Central America's worst problem, it is far from its only problem. The women of the Northern Triangle suffer from an epidemic of extreme domestic violence that goes unpunished, if not unnoticed, by local authorities. Araceli Bonilla, for example, still bears the burn scars of a cast-iron grill on her arm and the knife scars on the finger her husband attempted to sever.

To think that people living in such circumstances might be swayed to remain by an "expanded messaging campaign" is naïve and unrealistic -- in fact, it's absurd.

These are abused mothers and frightened children who are knocking at our door and need our help. Forcing them to return to their countries is in many cases tantamount to a death sentence.

It was clear to the judge in the ACLU's case RILR v. Johnson that these families have "escaped violence and persecution in these countries to seek asylum in the United States." That's why they deserve competent appointed counsel to help defend their asylum claims.

Instead: Coercion and scare tactics as a propagandist weapon against people who are simply trying to survive.

The federal government should cease its use of raids as tactics to deter mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America from coming to the United States--and stop depriving families who are already here from fair immigration hearings.

As the likes of both President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney laud the hit Broadway show Hamilton--which celebrates the life of an orphan born in the West Indies who came to the United States as a teenager and grew up to be one of our founding fathers and chief architects of our Constitution--we should take a moment to remember where we came from and reflect on who we are:

A nation born of immigrants who took risky journeys to start new lives.

A nation that values liberty, equality, and democracy.

Or so we thought.