Beyond the Wall: The Trump Administration’s Attacks on Central American Refugees

Beyond the Wall: The Trump Administration’s Attacks on Central American Refugees

by Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Chants of building a wall between the United States and Mexico have been the central rallying cry of the Trump Administration’s xenophobic rhetoric against Latino communities in the United States, fueling its harsh anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies. Much of this has focused on one vulnerable group in particular: the unaccompanied children, women, men, and families seeking refuge from the violence, corruption and impunity in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (NTCA), namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

After the last two years, the refugee crisis in the Northern Triangle remains unabated. In 2016, the three NTCA countries had a combined total of 14,870 homicides. Individually, each country was still well above the minimum identified by the United Nations to constitute an epidemic of violence, with El Salvador at 81 murders, Honduras at 58, and Guatemala at 27 per every 100,000 inhabitants. In the first six months of 2017 alone, children have been the victims of multiple homicides and massacres in Honduras. Extortion and gender-based violence against women and children continue to increase. The vast majority of these crimes remain in impunity, while citizens lack trust in their authorities and access to justice. Internal displacement, often a precursor to international migration, continues to increase in El Salvador and Honduras, with a lack of government response to ensure that internally displaced persons (IDPs) have access to services and protection.

While the Obama Administration’s policies addressing the refugee crisis in our own backyard were far from perfect, the Trump Administration attacks the very motivation for Central Americans to come here in the first place, going so far as to equate them to the perpetrators they are often fleeing: ruthless gang members.

Criminalizing unaccompanied children & their families at the border and interior

Since the end of last year, NGOs have documented a concerning trend: asylum seekers from Central America are being turned away at official ports of entry by Border Patrol agents, a violation of U.S. and international law, leaving them stuck in dangerous areas along Mexico’s northern border states. This is reflective not only of an empowered Customs and Border Protection (CBP) under the Trump Administration, but also of broader efforts to restrict access to asylum and tighten credible fear standards. For example, earlier this year former Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, stated that asylum seekers are being coached by coyotes, or smugglers, to make up credible fear claims. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, has asserted that the majority of unaccompanied children are in reality gang members, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” attempting to take advantage of the U.S. asylum system. This concerning rhetoric criminalizes the very notion of seeking asylum.

Unfortunately, these have not been the only efforts to punish unaccompanied children and their families. The Administration is continuing its rhetoric to threaten to separate children from their families at the border as a deterrence measure and has amplified its definition of gang affiliation. Youth suspected of being gang members are now specifically the targets of raids, while U.S. families receiving unaccompanied children are being accused of child trafficking, simply for wanting to keep them safe.

Terminating the only program allowing children to seek refugee protection

Besides restricting protection access at the border, the Administration has also recently terminated the Central America Minors (CAM) program, implemented under the Obama Administration. CAM offered a way for children to apply for refugee admission or temporary humanitarian protection in the United States without having to leave their home countries and after undergoing months of background checks. Now, an estimated 7,000 children who had submitted applications are left with no other option but to turn to smugglers to seek protection.

Targeting the undocumented population in the U.S.

Beyond the border, we have seen other threats targeting undocumented individuals in the United States—many of which hail from Central America. After Mexico, for example, the top countries of origin of the 800,000 Dreamers that were protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Should Congress not pass a legislative solution, an estimated 122 Dreamers will lose protection from deportation every day from now until March 5, 2018. DACA was even cited as spurring the arrival of unaccompanied children to the United States, despite the fact that only those who have continuously resided in the United States since 2007 are applicable.

The Administration is already in the process of terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Central Americans, a less well-known form of temporary protection from deportation. On November 6th, it was phased out for around 2,500 Nicaraguans, and early next year the Department of Homeland Security will make a decision on whether or not to renew TPS for 195,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans who have been living in and contributing to communities in the United States for up to 20 years.

Why this matters

All of these attacks against Central American asylum seekers are an affront to the United States’ responsibility to recognize those who seek international protection at its borders and abroad. Contrary to what members of the Administration have stated, there is no evidence that unaccompanied children are being recruited by gangs that are as transnational as the Administration has made them out to be.

This is deeply concerning, not only from a humanitarian and moral standpoint, but from a U.S. foreign policy perspective. While deportations to Central America have not yet increased this year, a substantial increase in returns of undocumented migrants, including Dreamers and TPS recipients, could further destabilize an already dire public security situation, cut off remittances to weak economies, and potentially set off another wave of displacement and migration to the United States. Since 2015, the United States has allocated an estimated $2 billion USD to the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America to address the root causes of migration in the region. Returning individuals to danger and ending crucial protection programs would have profoundly negative impacts, while undermining U.S. investments in improved security, prosperity, and governance in Central America. 

The Administration would do well to change the course of its rhetoric. We should recognize Central American asylum seekers and their families for what they are - valuable contributing members of our communities, future Americans, and in many cases, refugees - before there are long-term impacts to the United States and their diplomatic efforts abroad.

About the Author


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Daniella Burgi-Palomino is the Senior Associate for Mexico, Migrant Rights and Border Issues at the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), where she directs and implements advocacy strategies to strengthen human rights, accountability, and access to justice in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region and to promote the rights of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees from Mexico and Central America. Prior to joining LAWG, Daniella worked for six years on the protection of migrant rights in the U.S.-Mexico-Central America corridor with a variety of civil society organizations and foundations. Daniella was the first coordinator of the Central America and Mexico Migration Alliance (CAMMINA), a Fulbright García Robles Fellow in Mexico from 2010-2011, and a Program Associate at Oxfam America.  Daniella has completed research and fieldwork contributing to organizational advocacy strategies on issues such as transitional justice, migrant rights, gender and internal displacement. She holds a BA from Tufts University in International Relations and History with a focus in Latin American studies and a Master’s in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy where she focused on human security and migration. 

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