The United States is growing increasingly concerned about rising violence in Central America even as it launches a large-scale effort to round up Central American families and deport them to their home countries.
Twice in recent days, senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address Tuesday, have listed Central America as an area of concern for the coming year, and on Monday, the U.S. suspended the Peace Corps program in El Salvador, citing security concerns.
But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security insists it will continue to conduct immigration raids aimed at Central Americans.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States has asked the United Nations to set up refugee screening centers in Central America and will expand the refugee program it offers vulnerable migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Kerry called the plan for U.N. screening in Central America a “safe and legal alternative” to the “dangerous journey many are currently tempted to begin” on their way to the United States.
“That is who we are. That is what we do,” Kerry said at an address at the National Defense University.
President Barack Obama has authorized spending up to $70 million to meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs related to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.” The United States already plans to admit 85,000 refugees from around the world this year, which is 15,000 more than last year.
That money is largely expected to be used for up to 10,000 Syrian refugees, but could go to resettle as many as 3,000 Central Americans referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which will help screen and determine whether migrants are eligible.
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are three of the most violent countries in the world. More than 900 people were murdered in El Salvador – a country roughly the size of Massachusetts – in August, according to that country’s Institute of Legal Medicine. That’s an average of more than 30 a day.
The worsening violence led the Peace Corps to announce Monday that it was suspending the program in El Salvador “due to the ongoing security environment.” The Peace Corps suspended its Honduras program in 2012, also for safety reasons.
Last week, Kerry cited Central America as one of the challenges the U.S. will have to confront in 2016 in one of his first public talks this year. The administration worked with Congress last year to secure $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fight poverty and violence as well as reform their governments.
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Guatemala Thursday for the inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales. Biden is also expected to meet with the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras to discuss where they can best expend those resources and what money they will contribute.
While rising violence is a major factor, its not the only issue that must be addressed, said an administration official knowledgeable about the trip but not authorized to speak publicly.
“It’s a series of chronic problems that run the gambit from nature to economic efficiency to criminality and poor governance that are coming together at the moment to cause people to be leaving in increasing numbers,” the official said.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security continues to deport families – many of whom have requested asylum because of the violence – to those same countries. More than 121 people were apprehended during immigration raids over the New Year’s holiday.
The far-reaching operation focused on Central American adults and their children who arrived in the United States during the recent two-year surge of tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 337,117 people. Of those, 43,564 were from El Salvador, 57,160 from Guatemala and 33,848 nationals from Honduras.
The administration said they will honor humanitarian claims, but migrants who can not demonstrate through the legal process that they deserve humanitarian relief should expect to be returned.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the enforcement actions were consistent with priorities established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in November 2014. Talking to reporters before the State of the Union address, Muñoz said priorities focus on removing people convicted of serious crimes and recent arrivals. She said they all had gone through the legal system and a judge had ordered their removal.
“Those are the priorities from which the agency is focusing on,” she said Tuesday night.
But the raids have infuriated Democratic lawmakers and advocates who say picking up mothers and children late at night and early in the morning has generated widespread fear and panic across immigrant communities.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J, applauded the idea of opening a refugee processing center in Central America as an important step toward recognizing the humanitarian crisis merits a comprehensive approach.
“At the same time, we must immediately halt domestic immigration raids that fast-track the deportations of the very same families we are hoping to aid with today’s announcement, especially if they have not been granted access to legal counsel or meaningful due process,” he said.
It’s not just Democrats who are concerned.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said the United States has always afforded refuge to those fleeing oppression and persecution.
“Victims of violence and organized crime in Central America should certainly be considered for our refugee program,” Curbelo said. “Regrettably, the administration is sending mixed messages by at the same time deporting families to the region.”
Advocates pointed to the apparent contradiction. On the one hand, it’s positive that the administration recognized the refugee crisis due to widespread violence in Central America, said Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group America’s Voice.
“However, it is contradictory that the same administration is defending home raids and deportation for those already in America who are fleeing the same death, threats and sexual violence,” Sharry said.
On Wednesday, Kerry said the country can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to American traditions by welcoming those in need. He did not say how many Central American refugees would be accepted or when the program would begin.