United Nations officials are pushing for many of the Central Americans fleeing to the United States to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict, a designation meant to increase pressure on the United States and Mexico to accept tens of thousands of people currently ineligible for asylum.
Officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say they hope to see a regional agreement on that status Thursday when migration and interior department representatives from the U.S., Mexico and Central America meet in Nicaragua. The group will discuss updating a 30-year-old declaration regarding the obligations nations have to aid refugees.
While such a resolution would lack any legal weight in the United States, the agency said it believes "the U.S. and Mexico should recognize that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn't be automatically sent to their home countries but rather receive international protection."
Most of the people widely considered to be refugees by the international community are fleeing more traditional political or ethnic conflicts like those in Syria or the Sudan. Central Americans would be among the first modern migrants considered refugees because they are fleeing violence and extortion at the hands of criminal gang members, some of whom were deported from California to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where they overwhelmed weak and corrupt police forces and seized control of large sections of the countries.
"They are leaving for some reason. Let's not send them back in a mechanical way, but rather evaluate the reasons they left their country," Fernando Protti, regional representative for the U.N. refugee agency, told The Associated Press.
The U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants crossing into its territory, particularly children traveling without any adult guardian. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October. Three-fourths of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and most say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
Both Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration have called for action to reverse the trend. Among other changes, the administration wants to end a 2008 law allowing child migrants to automatically appear before an immigration judge. Instead, Border Patrol agents could decide whether to deport them or allow them an additional hearing.
Asked Monday whether the Obama administration viewed the situation at the border as a refugee crisis, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was "a humanitarian situation that requires urgent attention."
The administration, he said, wanted to ensure child migrants were housed in "humane conditions" while authorities worked quickly to determine whether they should be allowed to remain in the U.S. If not, he said, the Homeland Security secretary should be allowed "to exercise his discretion about repatriating."
“The Department of Homeland Security is working to secure additional space that satisfies applicable legal and humanitarian standards for detention of adults with children,” the White House said before a formal request on Tuesday for an extra $3.7 billion from Congress to address the migrant problem.
The bulk of the budget would be allocated to health and human services expenditures “to provide the appropriate care for unaccompanied children.” The administration added that “the cases are processed fairly and as quickly as possible."
The White House statement also noted agencies including Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will continue "to attack the criminal organizations and smuggling rings that are exploiting these individuals ... with a focus on stepped-up interdiction and prosecution.”
Under the President’s direction, the administration also continues to work closely with our Mexican and Central American partners to address the root causes of this problem, stem the flow of adults and unaccompanied children into the U.S., and expand capacity to receive and reintegrate repatriated migrants.
Some Congressional Republicans attribute the increased immigration to a failure to secure the border and recent immigration policy changes that led many to believe child migrants would be allowed to stay.
Many of the migrants, in fact, stay for years as their cases wend through overloaded migration courts. Those who say they are fleeing criminal violence generally are not eligible for political asylum, which is reserved for groups persecuted for their beliefs or identities. U.N. officials say there is no way of forcing the U.S. and Mexico to accept Central Americans as refugees, but a broad-based change in terminology could bring pressure on the two countries to do more.
"Unaccompanied children and families who fear for their lives and freedoms must not be forcibly returned without access to proper asylum procedures," UNHCR official Leslie Velez said in testimony submitted to the House Judiciary Committee late last month.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press