By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The word “asylum” in the U.S. has historically been associated with individuals seeking refuge from oppressive communist governments during the Cold War, or escaping the tyrannical rule of despots in Africa and the Middle East. However, as drug- and gang-related violence skyrockets in Mexico and Central America, more immigrants are heading north and seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, or after they have entered the country illegally. While existing asylum law makes the process difficult and complicated, immigrant rights organizations have filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Border Patrol that claims agents are turning immigrants away and denying them the ability to even make the initial asylum request.
The Asylum Process
Anyone from a foreign country can request asylum at a U.S. port of entry, or while being processed after being apprehended by a Border Patrol agent. Standard procedure involves a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asylum officer conducting a credible fear interview of the applicant while he or she is in custody. That officer then determines if the applicant’s case has merit, and if so, he or she is scheduled to appear before a U.S. immigration judge to present evidence of persecution by their home country’s government. That persecution must take one of five forms: based on the applicant’s race, nationality, religion, membership in a social group, or political opinion.
As the nature of immigration flows has changed, so has the burden on the asylum process and immigration court system. More Central American migrants are being apprehended along the southwest border than Mexican nationals, and they are claiming the governments of mainly El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are complicit in their persecution because of the high levels of corruption—resulting in willful ignorance at best and active involvement in crime by police officers at worst.
While many of these cases are strong and an increasing number of asylum requests from Mexico and Central America are being granted, it places the U.S. government in a precarious political and diplomatic position. Traditionally, asylum has been granted to refugees from places like the former Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and North Korea. Lately, war-torn countries like Iraq and Sudan and failing states like Somalia have been the source of successful asylum claims. But now the U.S. government is being asked by asylum applicants to acknowledge that close allies in the War on Drugs like Mexico are at least partly complicit in the violent persecution of its citizens.
Border Patrol Officers Accused
According to the San Antonio Current, the American Immigration Council and Council for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit in California that accuses U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers of systematically denying asylum to hundreds of immigrants with legitimate, life-threatening reasons to fear returning to their home country. The attorneys use anecdotal evidence from plaintiffs to back up their claims that those who arrived at a border entry point were allegedly told they didn’t qualify for asylum and warned that if they crossed the border, they’d be thrown in jail and their kids dispersed among foster homes. The Current also indicated that some asylum seekers were told to ask the Mexican government for help, or forced to sign unclear all-English documents, or to testify in front of a video camera that they actually didn’t want asylum.
A Washington Post story from January 2017 highlighted a growing trend of “foreigners who have been blocked in recent months from reaching U.S. asylum officials along the border, according to accounts from migrants and immigration lawyers and advocates.” The American Immigration Council and five other organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the time protesting the “systemic denial of entry to asylum seekers.” Both the Current and the Post cite DHS officials as saying there have been no changes in the way asylum requests are processed, and a spokesman told the Post that if a Border Patrol agent encounters a U.S.-bound migrant without legal papers and the person “expresses fear of being returned to their home country, our officers are required to process them for an interview with an asylum officer.”
Given that the evidence supporting these claims is anecdotal, it can’t be said with any degree of certainty if migrants seeking asylum are being turned away at all, or if they are in some locations, if Border Patrol agents are doing so of their own accord or due to a miscommunication of agency policy. The reality remains that many Border Patrol stations—and the immigration courts in general—continue to be overwhelmed with asylum requests due to a system that hasn’t been updated in decades.