The Contemporary U.S. Response to Central American Immigration: Some Improvements from the 1980s?


June 9, 2014

In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States experienced a large migration of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala, people who fled raging civil wars and crushing poverty.  Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. giovernment's respose was large-scale detention and a variety of measures designed to encourage "voluntary"  deportation, many of which were later found by a federal court to violate the law. These measures included transferring detained asylum seekers from locations, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco where they often could retain pro bono attorneys, to remote locations such as El Centro, California, Florence, Arizona, and Oakdale, Louisiana where pro bono counsel was scarce and generally unavailable.  In a more constructive fashion, Congress later provided Temporary Protected Status to many Salvadorans, allowing them to stay "temporarily" in the United States.

Over the last week, various news agencies have reported on hundreds of migrants -- including many children from Central America (this time primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) -- who are stretching the U.S. government's capacity to detain and humanely care for them.  The unanticipated flow of migrants has created a policy problem for the Obama administration. "Conservative critics argue that the administration’s enforcement of immigration law has sent encouraging signals to Central Americans, suggesting that they may enjoy a de facto amnesty if they get across the Mexico border." 

Today, CNN reports that more than 100 undocumented children without families were expected to arrive in Arizona from south Texas as part of a federal transport of minor immigrants to the state by the Department of Homeland Security. Nearly 1,000 "unaccompanied alien children" already arrived last week in Tucson and Phoenix from Texas. Unlike a Mexican immigrant who arrives to the United States, a Central American immigrant for a variety of reasons cannot be processed -- or returned home -- as quickly.


Arizona has reacted negatively to the transfer of immigrants to the state.  Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has been especially vocal in criticizing the federal government, which has had a very tense relationship with Arizona over the U.S. government's successful challenge to the state's immigration enforcement law known as SB 1070.

As Bill Hing blogged, the Obama administration said on Friday that it was launching a program to help recruit lawyers for unaccompanied minors facing removal.  The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which administers AmeriCorps, and the Department of Justice today announced "justice AmeriCorps," a strategic partnership to increase national service opportunities while enhancing the effective and efficient adjudication of immigration proceedings involving certain unaccompanied minor noncitizens.  This is a far cry from the Reagan administration's efforts ion the 1980s to remove Central American sylum seekers from areas where they can secure counsel to places where consel was not available (and they were more likely to throw in the towl and agree to removal).

This post originally appeared on ImmigrationProf Blog. © Copyright 2004-2014 by Law Professor Blogs, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Kevin R. Johnson

Kevin R. Johnson is Dean, Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law, and Professor of Chicana/o Studies. He joined the UC Davis law faculty in 1989 and was named Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 1998. Johnson became Dean in 2008. He has taught a wide array of classes, including immigration law, civil procedure, complex litigation, Latinos and Latinas and the law, and Critical Race Theory. In 1993, he was the recipient of the law school's Distinguished Teaching Award.

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