Refugee and immigration advocates and policy experts had some tough words for the Obama administration on Wednesday — repeatedly warning that additional funding should not focus on border security but on ensuring that children and women with legitimate claims of asylum due to violence or trafficking had their day in court.
In a conference call with reporters, Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission said it was "personally offensive" for Obama to tell children crossing the border that they should not come because they will be sent back, saying many of the children, with adequate legal representation, would win asylum cases.
The governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have a "clear humanitarian situation on the ground," said Leslie Vélez, Senior Protection Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
She said this was clearly the case since the "displacement" was first seen internally within these countries and only afterward did it spread to neighboring countries, not just the U.S.
Between 2012 and 2013, Nicaragua saw a 238 percent increase in asylum applications from children and families fleeing neighboring countries. Honduras has the world's highest homicide rate and El Salvador and Guatemala also wrestle with high levels of gang violence and organized crime.
Greg Chen, of the American Immigration Lawyer's Association (AILA) swiftly criticized proposals to change a 2008 law allowing children who crossed the border from countries other than Mexico or Canada to stay in the U.S. pending a legal review. These were laws enacted after a great deal of bipartisan debate, said Chen, and were intended to keep children safe from trafficking. "The U.S. needs to show leadership on protection."
When asked whether President Obama should have gone to the border to see the situation firsthand, Chen said that though the president has good staff making visits, some volunteer attorneys from his organization were in "shock" at seeing mothers nursing in inadequate border facilities and some found it "horrifying" that some places did not have adequate food nor water.
Megan McKenna, of the group Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), said the priority had to be to take the children out of the temporary border centers and move them into better medium-term facilities like military bases.
The administration has been grappling with a marked increase of unaccompanied children as well as women with young children crossing into the U.S. illegally, which has overwhelmed border facilities. Though the system normally sees a yearly flow of between 6,0000 to 8,000 children, the number was up to 52,000 in the last six months, advocates say.
The administration has asked Congress for $3.7 billion dollars in emergency funds to address the situation.
The White House has called the issue a "humanitarian crisis" but has also stressed that unaccompanied children and families should stop crossing the border into the U.S. On Tuesday White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz said on MSNBC that the "standards for humanitarian relief are very high, and just based on the history of these cases, it is unlikely that most kids are going to qualify for humanitarian relief."
Muñoz also stressed that children are vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers make money by giving false information to families.
"The bottom line is that the fact of violence in Central America cannot mean that folks get to come to the U.S.," said Muñoz.
In the meantime, immigration and refugee advocates said it was important that the situation not be seen as a "humanitarian border issue," as McKenna put it, but as a broader humanitarian situation with foreign policy implications.