The Migrant Caravan and Asylum Seeker Processing in the U.S.

I write this post in hopes of change: change in policy, attitude, opinions, beliefs, even assumptions that we make when considering immigration issues, particularly those of asylum seekers. To be honest, I’ve just recently begun to think about these issues, but this post is a way for me to think through it, and I hope that my doing so might clarify your own thinking or spark indignation and advocacy. Note: you do not need to share my opinion: please disagree with me if you so choose.

So first, here are some of the issues involved. I think the U.S. is needs to be held accountable by the U.N. for their crimes against immigrants. If the U.N. will not do so, then the lot falls to Immigration Advocacy groups and regular citizens, who can lobby on behalf immigrants because this is a population that cannot lobby for themselves. People coming to the U.S. seeking asylum are often detained at the point of entry because their asylum claim has to be filed and be processed by a court who asks questions to determine if that person really has credible fear of returning to their country.

Problem 1: Officials often throw asylum seekers into prisons instead of holding centers without consideration for age, disabilities, gender or sexual orientation. That is one essential problem with how asylum seekers are processed: without individualization, people undergo severe trauma in incarceration because there are no special facilities for asylum seekers. Why is acceptable to throw asylum seekers in jail in the first place? It’s as if they are assumed to be criminals before proven innocent. That runs contrary to our judicial system’s ‘innocent before proven guilty.’

Problem 2: There’s a surprisingly low asylum approval rate, especially against certain countries because the U.S. thinks that the harder they make it to enter the country, the less refugees they will attract. From 2002-2007 Haitian asylum seekers only had a 5% approval rate. The implication is that those who would consider asylum in the U.S. stay in danger and fear for their lives. And many of the countries surrounding the U.S., Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and others are undergoing extreme political turmoil, oppression, violence, and open criminal activity. Asylum seekers from these countries are discriminated against because the U.S. doesn’t want a flood of asylum seekers. In reality, however, people seeking asylum don’t often premeditate it for a long time or research the tough stance the U.S. has on asylum. Asylum is by nature a last resort. We do not need these prisons. Every other country with the exception of Australia processes asylum seekers without detaining them.

Problem 3: Families are separated. Children are often separated from parents and siblings and held in different facilities, sometimes in different places in the country. What’s more, there’s often no way to reunite the families because the only records immigrant processing centers keep are first names and age. Sometimes it’s only through advocates or non-profits asking questions of the parents and connecting the puzzle-pieces that families are able to be reunited after detention. Some never find each other. The trauma this causes in children is irrevocable. And trauma at an early age has been shown to decrease life-span, increase risk of substance abuse, and cause emotional and mental instability.

Problem 4: Asylum seekers are required to disclose credible fear of returning to their country at a port of entry or from within the country. However, presenting this fear after entering the country diminishes the chances asylum will be granted. People often do not disclose at a port of entry because 1) they don’t know that they need to, and 2) security personnel are intimidating and often remind them of government officials from the country they are fleeing. The problem of disclosing at a point of entry however, is that sometimes asylum can be denied right then and there by an authorized official if the stated fear is unclear. In that case, the seeker is just deported to the dangerous situation from which they fled and then faces a five-year ban on re-entry.

Problem 5: Using invalid travel documents is considered a federal offense and can be prosecuted. Many asylum seekers, however, do use fake identification or passports because they can’t apply for valid documentation from a government regime that is persecuting them. They have no other choice. A fake passport or ID does not make someone immediately deportable if they state their fear, but decreases the chances of their asylum being approved, which then makes them deportable.

Problem 6: The prisons that asylum seekers are detained in are privately funded. The reason behind this is actually that Congress has mandated a quota that 33,400 beds be filled. No other U.S. branch of correctional or law enforcement has a mandated quota on detainees. With this quota though, private corporations have incentive to invest in these prisons and detention centers. This is part of the reason why asylum seekers are often sent directly to a detention center. They help fulfill the quota and keep business owners happy. Not only do large corporations own prisons, they lobby on the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration detention procedure in order to feed their business. And this business is growing. CCA and GEO, the two private prison corporations that dominate the detention market, both have increased their profits substantially. From 2007 to 2014 GEO measured a 244 percent increase in profits, which has allowed them to create a new family detention center that will hold 1,200 immigrants. The story is the same in every commercial field: when large corporations dominate, they have the power to sway the market and expand it.

It’s clear from this that the U.S. does not welcome asylum seekers. In fact it does everything it can to discourage them, and in some cases prevent them, from entering the country.  In 2004 the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center compiled reports of U.S. forces in Haiti blocking that path of people attempting to flee Haiti by boat during the revenge killings following the removal of the Haitian president. Not only has the U.S. prevented people from leaving Haiti, the U.S. Coast Guard has also returned Haitian refugees intercepted on the water partially because U.S. Coast Guard personnel are not trained in determining asylum cases, but more because there’s an easy way to return migrants to their host nation by sea; whereas its harder if they arrive at a recognized port of entry.

It’s crystal clear the U.S. does not want refugees or asylum seekers. While this has been the nation’s attitude since 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, and the ‘war against terrorism’ rhetoric of the Bush administration, no one has unabashedly proclaimed this before Trump. Now it’s clear to all surrounding nations, meaning, those who would attempt are deterred from fleeing their host country.

For Christians considering this issue: consider the fact that Christ himself was an asylum seeker, fleeing to Egypt during Herod’s census. What if Egypt just closed its borders and denied his family entry? Clearly God had a specific plan for that, but this illustrates 1) that Christ empathizes with asylum seekers, and 2) that God uses the generosity of open countries to protect victims of persecution. Clearly, there is a point where it becomes wise for a country to close its borders or risk an economic crisis, but the U.S. is nowhere near that point. In fact, the U.S. is profiting off immigration. The problem is, it’s a country that’s only willing to take in as many people as it can profit from. Notice how often Trump refers to the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Mexicans in the caravan as criminals? That rhetoric plays on normal Americans’ fears that should they start letting in immigrants, the nation will be overrun by criminal gangs and drug traffickers. There’s no doubt that drug traffickers have joined the caravan as a Trojan Horse. But drug-traffickers do not claim refugee or asylum status. Criminals might, but because asylum seekers are either imprisoned or monitored, traffickers would avoid claiming asylum.

So why is Trump threatening to shut down the border and deploy military personnel to aid Border Patrol? There are a number of reasons: 1) it seems to illustrate his point that if we did not enforce the Border immigrants would flood and overwhelm our country, 2) because he wants to intimidate potential asylum seekers by using this as an opportunity to send a message, 3) he wants to pressure Mexico to keep them out, or 4) because he really believes asylum seekers are criminals and terrorists. If he shut down the border though, it would halt the passage of goods and services across the border, which brings in about $1.7 billion per day. This would clearly hurt the U.S. more than letting in asylum seekers, who would profit private corporations. But Trump’s rhetoric appeals so widely because it plays on people’s panic about security when seeing a large group of migrants, which Fox News so conveniently airs frequently. People are afraid of the ‘other.’ Let’s face it people. If you’re not, you’re not human. But we have to stymie those evolutionary responses and see not just a crowd of faces, but desperate people attempting to escape persecution, violence, starvation, physical and verbal abuse, etc.

No, we cannot just let anybody in, but nobody’s asking to do that. But we cannot keep everybody out. Asylum law actually was formed on the back of World War II as a safeguard against keeping people in a tortuous situation. Yes, it’s tricky to determine asylum claims, but that is why asylum seekers should be granted interviews to determine exactly what they are fleeing from and why they fear returning, as well as be processed through immigration courts. If we deny people that right, we not only violate International Law, we condemn people who have risked their livelihood and in some cases their lives to make it to our border.

Andrew ManningComment