Ready or not, Donald Trump will soon become the 45th President of the United States, which means all the immigration rhetoric that he campaigned on for the past year and a half is about to have its first encounter with reality.
Though Trump has recently become vague about his earlier campaign promise to repeal DACA, the president-elect has signaled that he still intends to play tough once in office by "immediately" deporting up to 3 million "criminal" immigrants and appointing notorious immigration hardliner Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General.
But what's missing from Trump's immigration rhetoric and proposed solutions in any indication that he actually understands the situation, namely the fact that most undocumented immigrants flooding into the United States these days are from Central America, not Mexico.
These men, women and children are increasingly fleeing some of the world's highest homicide rates in the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as detailed in an October 2016 Amnesty International report that I worked on in my former position as Amnesty's Central America researcher. After making the perilous journey through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, these immigrants are now asking: What will happen to us in the next four years?
The numbers of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. border this year could surpass the "surge" of 2014, when the number of unaccompanied children arriving on the Texas border reached crisis levels. While the plight went mostly unmentioned in this election cycle by both candidates, these people seeking to escape warlike levels of gang violence—mostly in Honduras and El Salvador— are particularly vulnerable to any dramatic escalation of immigration enforcement and deportation raids.
During his two terms in office, President Obama’s administration deported roughly 2.5 million people, more than under any previous president. The government also held tens of thousands of people in immigrant detention centers, sometimes for months on end. Obama's deportation efforts were meant to focus on immigrants with criminal records and people who had recently arrived — folks apprehended after the 2014 surge. But analysis of the earlier waves of Obama administration's deportation efforts show that many of those who were netted as "criminals" were people who had committed only minor infractions, as opposed to serious felons.
While there is still much confusion as to how Trump intends to change that policy once in office, his statements to “60 minutes” on Nov. 13 about immediately deporting 2-3 million “criminals” suggest an initial emphasis similar to that of the Obama government. Who exactly those "criminals" are, and the accuracy of the numbers that Trump is throwing around are subjects of debate. But it's probably safe to assume that the most recent arrivals from Central America will be particularly at risk during the Trump administration. It may be politically difficult to round-up and deport immigrants who who have lived here longer and built ties in their communities. The recent arrivals are the low-hanging fruit.
Should Trump seek to boost his deportation numbers he might also focus on people who have committed low-level immigration violations such as illegal reentry, something Senator Sessions wanted to punish with a mandatory five-year jail sentence in a 2015 legislative proposal. Should that becomes policy under Trump, Central Americans will again be most at risk.
Swapna Reddy, co-director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), told me that many of her organization’s cases involved Central American women who fled to save their lives but whose “credible fear” concerns were not duly noted by officials. Instead the women were removed at the border without proper immigration proceedings. Many of those women immediately attempted to reenter the United States and, in some incidences, were able to win their asylum cases with legal representation. The point is that these women aren’t criminals looking to defy the law, rather refugees motivated by fear. But they could be prosecuted if illegal reentry becomes a cornerstone of the Trump administration, Reddy says.
Nearly all of the dozens of people interviewed for the Amnesty International report told us they had attempted to reach the United States more than once. Honduras and El Salvador are countries where many neighborhoods are effectively ruled by brutal gangs. For those who had faced murder attempts, kidnappings and gang rapes, there was no choice but to run and—if caught and sent back— to run again.
Though the Northern Triangle governments boast of improved reception program for deportees and burgeoning job reintegration programs mostly funded by international aid, none of the Central American governments were focused on providing protection mechanisms for deportees whose lives are in danger. If Trump follows through on his tough guy talk, Central American governments may be facing an influx of vulnerable people with no clear policy in place to try to keep them safe.
There are no official statistics on the number of deportees who were denied asylum in the U.S. and then murdered after being returned to their country of origin. But anecdotal evidence suggests the threat is real. A forthcoming study cited by The Guardian said that local news reports showed at least 83 returned deportees from the U.S. have been murdered since 2014. And that doesn't take into account the much higher number of people deported from Mexico before reaching the U.S.
Saúl, who was featured in the Amnesty report, fled Honduras last year after surviving a murder attempt that almost killed his two young sons. He applied for asylum in Mexico, but was rejected and sent home. Three days after we interviewed him and his frightened family in Tegucigalpa, Saúl was murdered.
Reddy hopes most Americans would be horrified if they realized people are being deported and then murdered for the exact reasons that led them to seek asylum in the U.S. If more people knew what was happening, "there might be more movement to fix this,” she told me.
In the meantime, she and other organizations are gearing up for a long and unclear fight against the next government. Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the list of unknowns in the Trump era extends beyond deportations. For example, will Trump continue with the program to give $750 million in aid to Central America, ostensibly to fix the migration issue at its source? Would he condition security support on strengthening institutions and rule of law in Central America? Would his State Department continue nascent efforts to partner with the United Nations Refugee Agency to process more asylum applications in Central America before the petitioners arrive at the border?
“We had had this hope that we could expand on what the Obama administration was already doing and make it grow. Now we are trying to just preserve what we have,” Meyer said.
The uncertainty extends south of the border. Marta, a Salvadoran lawyer who has worked on the cases of many people targeted by both the gangs and security forces in El Salvador, says there is a “great collective fear” right now among Salvadorans looking to flee and those already in the U.S.
Many of those Central Americans are increasingly being caught by Mexican immigration authorities before they ever reach the U.S. border. One of the many unspoken truths since the 2014 crisis is how much the U.S. now relies on Mexico to slow the flow to its southern border. What happens if the same Mexican authorities who Trump denigrated during his campaign decide to stop cooperating?
Given Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s attempts to work with Trump, that may seem unlikely now. But who is to say what might happen when a new government comes to power in 2018?
While a lot of question marks hover over 2017, it's probably safe to say it's going to be a rocky year for millions of immigrants chasing the American Dream. Some U.S. cities and universities are preparing sanctuary policies, but immigration experts say there will be tough times ahead.
“It cannot be sugarcoated,” says Michael J. Wishnie, an immigration expert and law professor at Yale. “I very much believe that enormous pain is coming.” But, he adds, “Even in the darkest times there are things to be done.”
Sara Rafsky is a freelance journalist and M.S. candidate in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was previously Researcher on Central America at Amnesty International in Mexico City and the Americas Program Researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.