Arresting and deporting women and children in the middle of the night is undoubtedly a nasty business. It's also sometimes necessary.
Some Democrats are furious about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's crackdown on immigrants from Central America whose requests for asylum have been denied. But the heavy-handedness of the raids -- which took place during the New Year's weekend -- is part of the point: With the future of U.S. immigration policy clouded by political uncertainty and legal challenges, both the emigrants and those who seek to exploit them need a clarifying reminder that the U.S. will enforce its immigration laws.
The number of child migrants and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossing the border is now nearing levels surpassed only during the height of the crisis in 2014. Many attribute this increase to escalating violence in Central America. Yet while El Salvador saw a nearly 70 percent jump in homicides last year, the number of homicides in Honduras and Guatemala has declined in recent years. And for all the horrors of violence, Central Americans have plenty of other reasons to come to the U.S.: family, jobs, a punishing drought back home.
Misinformation and confusion about U.S. immigration policy have also played a role. The surge in arrivals of children with and without a parent coincides with executive actions that President Barack Obama issued to shield children brought earlier to the U.S., and in some cases their parents, from deportation. Smuggling gangs have falsely used these moves, and the prospect of an amnesty, to encourage people to make the dangerous and expensive trek north.
This flow of several hundred thousand Central American women and children has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. Sorting out those who have humanitarian claims to asylum from those coming to the U.S. for other reasons is time-consuming, and the U.S. lacks the courts, legal personnel, and detention facilities to handle them. So they have often been released until their cases can be heard -- in many cases not for two years. Such delays amount to a de facto policy of open admission for children and families.
Immigration authorities need to do better. One prerequisite is that families in the U.S. have adequate access to legal representation. Better yet, the U.S. should do more to keep those seeking protection from making a risky journey north. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. would work with the United Nations to process asylum claims in Central American countries will help. The U.S. also needs to accelerate its in-country processing, which has been pathetically slow. Its campaigns to inform Central Americans about U.S. immigration laws and policies have also been spotty and untested.
None of these efforts precludes the stronger enforcement of the law in the U.S. The New Year's weekend raids targeted 121 adults and children that an immigration judge had already ordered removed from the U.S. As harsh as those measures may be, they are consistent with the law and send a strong deterrent signal. Despite the outcry, backing off now would reinforce the misperceptions in Central America that helped create this problem -- and undermine public support for legal immigration in the U.S.