Photo by Michael Fleshman
United States / Asylum

The Other Refugee Crisis

A few weeks ago, President Obama, in an emotional speech, announced executive actions on gun control.

“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world,” he said. “But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

The president’s plea was passionate, and regardless of one’s position on gun control, the deaths of moviegoers, first graders, college students, and churchgoers are appalling. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to wonder whether Obama’s concerns about violence—and his corresponding policy applications—apply to the recent surge of Central American migrants who are trying to rebuild their lives in the United States.

Between January 1 and Obama’s speech on January 5, El Salvador experienced a whopping 130 murders. The country’s murder rate—104 murders per one hundred thousand people, the highest since the end of its civil war in 1992—is roughly 30 times that of the United States. A U.S. State Department report a few weeks ago said the country risks “losing an entire generation of young people due to violent conflict.” Although El Salvador’s violence is typically attributed to gangs, a police study last November found that nearly 70 percent of murder victims had no gang affiliation, but rather were collateral damage of the country’s ongoing power struggle.

While El Salvador may be nearly fourteen hundred miles south of the United States, its current situation is increasingly relevant for American policy makers. Violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—countries known collectively as the Northern Triangle—has largely been responsible for the influx in migrants arriving at the U.S. border in the final three months of 2015. In October and November alone, 10,600 children traveling alone and 12,500 people traveling as families were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The recent surge isn’t entirely unprecedented. During the summer of 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border increased dramatically.

In response to the 2014 surge, the United States attempted to curb immigration by discouraging migrants from making the journey north. In July 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a song called “La Bestia” on Central American radio as part of a campaign to dissuade migrants. Its lyrics, when translated to English, describe the trek to the United States as a “wretched train of death” and compare migrants to cattle on their way to a slaughterhouse.

The U.S. Border Patrol also attempted to outsource security by encouraging Mexico to strengthen its protections against undocumented Central American migrants. Since the summer  of 2014, the U.S. government has paid Mexico tens of millions of dollars to tighten security at the Mexico-Guatemala border and increase deportations of undocumented immigrants residing in Mexico.

While such measures initially seemed to deter migrants—the number of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped in the first half of 2015—the final months of 2015 saw a substantial increase in border crossings.

Because of the ineffectiveness of these deterrence measures, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) began raids on undocumented immigrants living in the United States in early January. Officials familiar with the situation, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post, said that the new batch of raids primarily targeted Central American citizens who had arrived in the U.S. recently but who did not have asylum status.

Under U.S. law, asylum can be granted to any person residing in the United States, regardless of their immigration status, if they can prove “past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Activists have vehemently opposed the recent raids, arguing that current levels of violence in countries like El Salvador ought to qualify many Central American migrants for protection as refugees or asylees. Some experts agree.

“Substantial numbers of these migrants—a lot of them children and families—are fleeing violence and poverty,” said Geoff Thale, director at the Washington Office for Latin America, a nonprofit think tank, last June. “Many would qualify for asylum or refugee status if given the chance to tell their stories to authorities.”

But telling their stories to authorities presents a significant hurdle to many asylum-seekers. Despite what political rhetoric about “illegal immigration” commonly implies, immigration is actually classified under civil law, not criminal, so defendants do not have the right to an attorney. Navigating the legal system thus presents a problem for many recent migrants.

In a 2015 report, the Seattle University School of Law concluded that “[w]ithout financial resources, English language skills, or much knowledge of the American justice system, these individuals have great difficulty finding representation.”

Across all cases, roughly 3 percent of asylum-seekers without an attorney are granted asylum, compared to 18 percent for asylum-seekers with legal representation. But these numbers only indicate the number of asylum-seekers who attempt to use the judicial process—migrants who lack English skills or an in-depth knowledge of the American justice system may not be aware of all the steps required to gain lawful residency. So even though the Obama administration has argued that the migrants it deports didn’t qualify for asylum, it is likely that many never had the opportunity to explain their circumstances.

Activists have also expressed concern that the immediate nature of recent deportations prohibits immigrants from taking legal recourse. With recent raids, some immigrants have been placed on a plane to their home country almost immediately after their arrest, and they are therefore powerless to make their own case for asylum.

For some migrants, deportation can literally be a matter of life or death: One study has documented 83 cases of migrants who were killed in their home countries after being deported from the United States between January 2014 and October 2015.

Outcry over the treatment of asylum-seekers hasn’t just been limited to activists. Last week, 22 senators signed a letter to President Obama calling for a halt to deportations. They joined the 146 House representatives who had issued a similar call nine days earlier. “It is important to evaluate this as a humanitarian and refugee crisis involving a vulnerable population and not strictly as a border security and immigration enforcement matter,” they wrote.

Perhaps the president can take note. Continued deportations show utter disregard for the lives of Central American migrants. And while the moral case for allowing migrants to stay is simple, the legal case isn’t difficult either. It relies only on a slight shift in rhetoric: Those fleeing violence and persecution in countries like El Salvador are not really migrants, but refugees. Under both U.S. and international law, they have the right to remain in the United States.

If President Obama truly seeks to stop preventable acts of violence—as he has claimed when discussing issues like gun control—he could do enormous good by granting recent Central American arrivals refugee status and halting the current wave of deportations.