Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that deportations of Central Americans would continue despite recognition by the administration that a humanitarian crisis had enveloped El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The administration does not plan to stop some 15 to 18 flights a week back to Central America, where homicide rates are now some of the highest in the world.
The United States does not have open borders, Johnson said. Those apprehended trying to enter the country illegally and who’ve been ordered removed by immigration courts after exhausting their appeals will be sent home.
“There is a right way and a wrong way,” Johnson said. “As long as we have border security and as long as our borders are not open borders. We have to be consistent with our priorities.”
Johnson spoke on a host of issues that also included terrorism, cybersecurity and family detention during a breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor.
We have laws. We have a process.
Jeh Johnson, secretary, Department of Homeland Security
The strong message reflects the United States’ challenge in carrying out its responsibilities to stop illegal migration while confronting the crisis in Central America, where, it acknowledges, many migrants cannot return home safely.
The White House reached an agreement with Costa Rica last week to host up to 200 Central American refugee applicants while the United States assessed their asylum claims. It was part of a large package of measures intended to protect migrants that included expanding the number of people who could apply to the U.S. refugee program for children.
Advocates such as Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, praised the expansion as acknowledgment by the Obama administration that Central American migrants are fleeing a humanitarian crisis and not an economic one.
But implementation of the program is a years-long process.
The concern is that they place enforcement first and think about due process as an afterthought.
Kevin Appleby, Center for Migration Studies of New York
Nearly 30,000 people traveling as families and 26,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the border trying to cross illegally this year.
The administration has been criticized for focusing more on enforcement than protection. The administration has carried out mass raids, and thousands of children and their parents have been held in large family detention centers.
Meanwhile, the expansion of Central American refugee centers, announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in January, hasn’t involved any refugees coming to the United States, and only 267 have been admitted to the United States under the 2-year-old Central American Minors Program. The government has received 9,500 applications.
“The concern is that they place enforcement first and think about due process as an afterthought,” Appleby said. “And they go in tandem.”
Appleby and others urged the administration to halt deportations until the expanded refugee program was up and running and the backlogged asylum system could be improved.
Johnson said the administration wasn’t happy with the small numbers of people approved under the minors program, which is why the government was expanding the program. He noted that the administration worked with Congress to spend $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fight poverty and violence.
But he said the Central American crisis also was affected by the refugee crisis in the Middle East. There are only so many people to screen asylum applicants.
“We have a finite level of resources that we can dedicate to these huge humanitarian situations,” Johnson said.