Latin America

US Democrats protest raids against undocumented Central Americans

More than 140 lawmakers in Congress send Obama a letter to demand urgent action Secretary of State Kerry announces new plan to allow refugees to apply for asylum

US Secretary of State John Kerry visits a refugee center in Silver Spring, Maryland on Wednesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry visits a refugee center in Silver Spring, Maryland on Wednesday.SAUL LOEB / AFP

Tensions between US President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have escalated over deportation raids targeting hundreds of Central American families that took place over the Christmas holidays.

More than 140 Democratic lawmakers sent President Obama a letter demanding that he take swift action to find a solution to the “refugee crisis” and halt the deportations.

This has caused a general panic across the immigrant communities” US Democratic lawmakers

On the eve of US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala, the US State Department announced on Wednesday that it would expand a refugee program for “vulnerable families and individuals” who may be at risk if they are returned to their home countries.

Although this was one of the key demands by Democrats, the timing of the plan, which has not been fully detailed, has still raised questions in Washington.

The letter to Obama was sent just before the president was to deliver his final State of the Union Address before Congress on Tuesday.

In it, 146 Democratic lawmakers “strongly condemned” the raids carried out by the US Department of Homeland Security, in which more than 100 “refugee mothers and children” from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been detained.

“This has caused a general panic across the immigrant communities,” the letter stated.

Thousands of Central Americans began arriving in the United States last year, escaping the gang and drug violence and poverty in their own nations. US Homeland Security began stepping up its deportations in November.

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The issue is expected to be discussed during Biden’s scheduled visit to Guatemala on Thursday to attend the inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales. Accompanying the vice president will be Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a plan which he said will increase the number of Central American refugees who can apply for asylum in the United States.

“I am pleased to announce that we have plans to expand the US Refugee Admissions Program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits,” he said during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

According to the State Department, Washington will work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and some NGOs to identify those families who need protection and will be able to apply for asylum.

Third countries may be used as screening centers, but that final decision hasn’t been made

Although different, the program is based on one launched at the end of 2014 to process refugee requests for Central American juveniles who want to join their parents in the United States, as long as their mother and father have legal status. The difference is that under the new proposal Central Americans, including adults, will be able to apply for refugee status regardless of whether they have a family member with a residency permit.

It is expected that third countries will be used as screening centers, but that final decision has not yet been made.

US congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat from Illinois and one of the signatories of the letter, told El PAÍS that it appeared to “be a step in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, in an email, Gutiérrez said that he and other Democrats don’t believe that the “raids and detentions are the correct manner to treat mothers and children who have fled failed counties where their lives are in danger.”

English version by Martin Delfín.