An El Salvadorian child is transported for processing after he and his family crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. 
Photo by John Moore/Getty

What’s in a name? Migrant vs. refugee vs. illegal immigrant

Early warning signs indicate that the Obama administration may soon have another border crisis on its hands.

An uptick in the number of Central Americans intercepted at the U.S. border is rivaling the levels that caused a massive humanitarian and political firestorm nearly two years ago. Compounding the problem is that the Obama administration has yet to rebound from the last crisis. Federal policies remain consistently conflicted over a seemingly basic question: Are these Central Americans technically migrants, or refugees?

It’s a simple distinction that has vast implications. If they’re migrants, the administration has maintained that they need to be detained and deported, with the end goal to ultimately stop the migration at its source. But if we’re talking about refugees (or legally speaking, asylum-seekers), then they must be processed, vetted and ultimately welcomed into the U.S. with open arms. One description definitively does not fit – “illegal.” Migrants have the legal right to present themselves at U.S. ports and ask for protection. 

But the migrant vs. refugee question is at the heart of tensions facing the Obama administration in trying to prevent a massive migration wave from spiraling out of control –  again.

The administration has, for the most part, adopted the former interpretation, anticipating that as migrants, the vast majority of people would eventually be deported back to Central America.

The feds built new detention centers to hold immigrant women and children. The government sped up the process time for cases to wind through the immigration courts. And over the next month, federal agents plan to carry out mass raids to sweep up individuals who have final orders of deportation in their name.

Almost none of these policies or actions have gone smoothly. At the bare minimum, the results point to the unwieldy conclusion that existing laws and court rulings heavily favor viewing these Central Americans as asylum-seekers – not economic migrants.

This week immigration advocates took the administration back to court, arguing that U.S. officials violated a federal judge’s order to swiftly release children held in detention. Attorneys in the case say a special monitor is needed to keep the administration in line, while state officials are still struggling to find ways to keep the facilities legally licensed.

At the same time the administration is getting buried under lawsuits that contend it’s skimming over the due process rights that are supposed to be afforded to asylum-seekers. News reports stoked public outrage that immigration judges expected that toddlers were capable of representing themselves inside a courtroom.

The administration has a number of reasons to want to get out ahead of the migration and avoid another crisis at the border. A flood of unaccompanied minors and families that arrived at the border in 2014 maxed out resources and frankly embarrassed the administration for its lack of preparedness and response. The festering problems consumed a 24-hour news cycle for weeks, igniting an intense political debate over the state of U.S. border security and immigration.

“The administration panicked. They weren’t ready. There were a lot of kids and families arriving at the border, and the reaction was, ‘We’ve got to stop it,’” said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The conditions inside the source countries have not vastly improved since then. Political instability and extreme poverty in the region left an opening for illicit crime. Gang violence is now a daily threat for entire communities that severely lack rule of law.

The administration has forged ahead in efforts to deter migration and send a clear message that the U.S. border was not open. But experts caution that the administration’s strong stance is not having the desired effect.

Jonathan Hiskey, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, released a study earlier this year to offer an explanation of why families were fleeing their homes in the first place. To gauge the degree of their desperation, researchers asked whether two main factors would deter their travels – if Central Americans fully understood the extreme dangers of the journey and that they’re not welcome in the U.S., would they still take the risk?

“It has no impact whatsoever on their decision to migration,” Hiskey said. “It is violence, not U.S. immigration policy, that is most influencing the migration.”

Countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America routinely top the worst of the worst index of distressed countries around the world. El Salvador ranks No. 1 in the world for femicide, the killing of women because they are female. Guatemala comes in third, according to the 2012 Small Arms Survey, with Honduras closing in on seventh. El Salvador this year also continued its streak as the murder capital of the world, a title it stole from Honduras in 2014.

The conditions in the home countries are crucial because they explain the legal predicament for countries like the U.S. that have resisted taking in the hundreds of thousands of displaced Central Americans.

By legal standards internationally, many – if not most – of the people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have strong claims for asylum or refugee status. If they make it to the U.S., officials are legally obligated to give them a chance to fight for asylum.

Advocates within the immigrant community are outraged by the proposed deportation raids scheduled to take place over the next month because they specifically target this exact group – mostly women and children fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Central America.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) argues that the families targeted in the raids have exhausted their legal options in seeking asylum in the U.S.

“Again, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. We will continue to do so, as much as possible, consistent with basic fairness and our values,” ICE deputy press secretary Sarah Rodriguez said in a statement.

Advocates readily point out that the administration has placed women and children into the same category of deportation priorities as immigrants convicted of domestic violence or sexual abuse. It comes just below the top priority of weeding out suspected terrorists and violent felons.

More to the point, the uptick in Central Americans at the border, despite the U.S. and Mexico’s aggressive efforts to tame the tide, shows the level of desperation driving the migration. Families are still making the dangerous journey by the thousands.

“When you’re in a burning house, shutting the windows and doors is not going to keep people from trying to break out,” Brané said.

Immigration Policy and Immigration Reform

What's in a name? Migrant vs. refugee vs. illegal immigrant