Has Obama forsaken Central America’s refugees?

In this photo taken July 7, 2015, immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally stand in line at a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio.
In this photo taken July 7, 2015, immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally stand in line at a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio. AP

President Barack Obama will call on world leaders Tuesday to do more to address the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

The worldwide appeal to help more of the world’s 21.3 million refugees, particularly those fleeing Syria’s civil war, has been applauded across the refugee community, but it’s also raised eyebrows among some, who question why the Obama administration won’t make the same commitment to those fleeing violence-torn Central America.

“A lot of what the president is trying to do is noble, with his summit, to increase responsibility sharing, but it’s going to be a little inconsistent, in fact, hypocritical that we’re not doing the same thing with refugees in our own hemisphere,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

The United Nation’s General Assembly will gather Monday in New York to discuss what to do about the world’s 2.3 million refugees. The next day, Obama will host a Leader’s Summit, which has been dubbed the “Obama summit,” calling for more refugee funding and greater opportunities for refugees to work and study.

But just hours before Obama is expected to speak Tuesday afternoon, more than 160 advocates and interested parties are expected to gather less than a mile away at the Center for Migration Studies to participate in a “Shadow Summit” on the U.S. response to unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in the so-called Northern Triangle, which comprises El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

It’s a difficult position for leaders of the refugee community to be in. They don’t want to “slap the hand” of the administration when it’s trying to do a good thing for the global refugee situation. But at the same time, leaders feel compelled to point out that a similar crisis is happening in our own backyard, and they say it deserves a greater commitment.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have become three of the most violent nations in the world. Each is in the top 10 for homicide rates, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Last year, 32 percent of U.S. deportations were to the region, including 33,000 people deported to Guatemala, 21,000 to El Salvador and 20,000 to Honduras.

The administration has taken steps to ease the asylum process for Central Americans. The White House reached a deal with Costa Rica this summer to host up to 200 people seeking asylum in the United States while federal officials assess their claims. The administration also will expand the number of people allowed to apply to the U.S. refugee program for children.

But advocates say neither program is adequate. Two hundred is a tiny amount considering that 122,000 unaccompanied children and family members were apprehended last year. And only about 267 children have been admitted into the United States under the 2-year-old child refugee program, for which there have been roughly 9,500 applications.

On a call with reporters Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called Central America an “enormous focus” of the administration. The administration worked with Congress to secure $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras aimed at economic development and fighting poverty and violence.

Obama also has authorized spending up to $70 million to meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs related to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.”

“We do have an allocation for refugees from that region, but we’ve been more focused on trying to get at those root causes in Central America and try to prevent dangerous migration patterns, particularly for unaccompanied children up to the U.S. border,” Rhodes said.

New statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that after a drop-off last year, Central American families and unaccompanied minors are again surging across the U.S. Southwest border and are on track to set a new record for apprehensions.

It’s not an easy position for Obama, either. Last week, the administration announced that it was seeking to admit 110,000 refugees next year, a 30 percent increase from fiscal 2016. The proposed increase, much of which will be for Syrian refugees, has angered Republicans, who argue that it’s too much.

Some Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have raised the specter that refugees are a national security issue.

“Terrorists have announced that they will infiltrate the refugee population and have successfully done so multiple times in Europe over the last year,” Sessions said in a statement. “These asylum-seekers are overwhelmingly male who make the journey from hotbeds of terrorism to countries throughout Europe.”

The detention of children is expected to be big focus of talks Monday. A draft outcome document that leaders will sign calls for ending the detention of children except in the rarest cases.

“We will also pursue alternatives to detention while these assessments are under way,” says a draft of the document that was shared with McClatchy. “Furthermore, recognizing that detention for the purposes of determining migration status is seldom, if ever, in the best interest of the child, we will use it only as a measure of last resort, in the least restrictive setting, for the shortest possible period of time.”

Several civil society groups, such as Human Rights First, have urged the administration to abandon the use of family detention centers in conjunction with the summit.

There are three U.S. family detention centers where women can be held with their children while their asylum cases are heard. The controversial centers have been the source of multiple allegations of abuse and poor conditions.

“It undermines U.S. global leadership on refugee issues,” said Eleanor Acer, he director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program. “It sets a poor example for other countries. If the United States is a global leader on human rights and refugee protection, for it to engage in a practice that runs so contrary to human rights standards sends the wrong signal to other countries.”