Hillary Clinton Defends Call To Deport Child Migrants

But legal groups say virtually all unaccompanied minors from Central America qualify for humanitarian relief.

08/19/2015 01:56 pm ET

Hillary Clinton this week defended her call to deport children from the U.S. who are fleeing violence in Central America.

Speaking at a press conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, the former secretary of state and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination said that deporting the children, many of whom are seeking asylum, would send a “responsible message” that would deter Central American families from sending their children to the United States.

“Specifically with respect to children on the border, if you remember, we had an emergency, and it was very important to send a message to families in Central America: Do not let your children take this very dangerous journey,” Clinton said.

Now that the border crisis has largely passed, however, Clinton said U.S. immigration authorities should focus on expediting the deportation cases of children and people locked in family detention.

“Now I think we have a different problem,” she said. “Because the emergency is over, we need to be moving to try to get people out of these detention centers, particularly the women and children. I think we need more resources to process them, to listen to their stories, to find out if they have family in this country, if they have a legitimate reason for staying. So I would be putting a lot of resources into doing that, but my position has been and remains the same.”

Unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico are generally not placed in immigrant detention. Instead, U.S. law requires authorities to transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and release them to a guardian in the U.S. if possible.

Virtually all the unaccompanied minors who crossed into the United States from the violence- and poverty-plagued Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras last year can make a credible claim for humanitarian relief under U.S. law, according to Jonathan Ryan, the executive director for RAICES, a Texas nonprofit that coordinates pro bono representation for immigrants.

Last year, RAICES carried out more than 2,400 legal intakes for unaccompanied minors in need of lawyers. The group found that 63 percent of these minors were “obvious winners” for claims of asylum or other relief because their circumstances closely paralleled those seen in other, earlier cases in which asylum had been awarded. Even among the rest of the minors, Ryan said the vast majority still had a fighting chance to move forward with a claim for humanitarian relief.

Those assessments are playing out in court. RAICES has won 98 percent of the cases for unaccompanied minors its lawyers have taken on, Ryan says.

“Last summer, when politicians from both parties were making statements that these children were not refugees, that these children all needed to be sent home, my agency was busy speaking with these children,” Ryan told HuffPost. “The same statements that Clinton made last summer are the same statements being made to legitimize the family detention that she is now apparently against. Whether it’s [Republican presidential candidate] Mr. [Donald] Trump or Mrs. Clinton, these knee-jerk statements don’t do anything to protect children, and they certainly don’t do anything to protect vulnerable refugees.”

Ashley Feasley, the advocacy director for Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said her group has had a similar experience.

“We at CLINIC know from representing immigrant children that when they have access to legal representation, they’re usually able to obtain protection under U.S. law -- and that’s because in many cases, these children are fleeing persecution, targeted violence and gang recruitment,” Feasley told HuffPost. “The emergency for unaccompanied minor children is not over now that it’s moved away from the border. It’s now in our courtrooms. We have vulnerable children who cannot access justice in our legal system today. And that’s an emergency.”

The campaign for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is competing with Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, pounced on her comments.

“When thousands of children fleeing death and drug gangs in Central America sought refuge at the U.S. border, [Clinton's] first instinct was to send them home,” O’Malley campaign spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain said in a statement Tuesday. "Then, facing pressure for taking a position that would essentially ensure sending children back to certain death, she backtracked. Now today, she is standing by her initial comments that the children should have been sent back immediately. Leadership is about forging public opinion, not following it.”

The Clinton campaign did not immediately return a request for comment on Domenzain's statement. 

O’Malley has called for immigrant detention to be drastically scaled down, and has characterized the facilities where immigrant families are locked up as "detention camps."

At the height of the border crisis last year -- in which some 68,000 unaccompanied minors crossed illegally into the United States, along with a similar number of female-headed family units, upending the national immigration debate in the process -- Clinton said in an interview with CNN that the children should be deported.

“It may be safer [for them to stay], but that’s not the answer,” Clinton said then, adding that “they should be sent back.” Clinton also said the U.S. should do more to deal with the violence in Central America so that families won’t feel compelled to send their kids to the United States. 

That was before Clinton had officially announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Since then, she has taken a more liberal stance on immigration, saying that she would expand upon the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration if elected and that she supports comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants.

Her campaign, however, has repeatedly declined to answer emails from HuffPost about whether she thinks family detention centers should be closed.

Elise Foley contributed reporting.

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