Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

asylum-blog-graph

Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

A New Line of Defense: Trends at Mexico’s Southern Border

By Dennis Stinchcomb

The boat to Mexico.  Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

The boat to Mexico. Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

Statistics show that the United States is relying on Mexico to do what U.S. immigration law and the Northern Triangle countries can’t: keep Central American children out of the U.S.  In 2014, the same year in which Mexico announced tightened security measures along its southern border with Guatemala and Belize, Mexican authorities deported over 18,000 children, up 117 percent from just over 8,000 the previous year, according to Mexican government figures.  A similar increase is already being registered in 2015.  During January and February of this year, deportations of minors from Mexican soil tallied over 3,200 – a 105 percent jump from the same period in 2014.  Since launching what U.S. officials have dubbed a “layered approach” to immigration enforcement, data reveal several noteworthy trends:

  • Mexico’s get-tough approach has prevented a significant number of migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the first seven months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 witnessed a 48-percent decrease in unaccompanied child apprehensions and a 35-percent decrease in family unit apprehensions along the U.S. border.  However, considered in light of the unprecedented number of deportations from Mexico, these figures suggest that child and family migration from Central America remain at historic highs. 
  • Central American children detained in Mexico are unlikely to be offered forms of humanitarian protection mandated by international law. Despite increases in child detention and deportation, a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute points to inadequate screening and arbitrary detention as among the obstacles preventing tens of thousands of children from seeking and receiving relief from removal.
  • Both Mexican and U.S. data show that a growing share of child and family migrants are Guatemalan. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of Guatemalan children deported from Mexico during the first five months of FY15 doubled since the same period last year and now accounts for 60 percent of all child deportations from the country.  Meanwhile, the share of child deportees from Honduras dropped from roughly one-third to less than one-quarter, and those from El Salvador fell off slightly to just above 15 percent.  An analogous shift is also evident at the U.S.-Mexico border where Guatemalans now comprise 35 percent of unaccompanied child apprehensions compared to 25 percent during FY14.  Similarly, the proportion of Salvadoran and Honduran children has declined from roughly 25 percent each to 18 and 9 percent, respectively.
  • Smugglers and migrants are already adapting to heightened enforcement in Mexico and charting new, more dangerous routes north. Local media reports have covered migrants’ attempts to bypass border checkpoints by sea and traverse Mexico undetected on foot or in third-class buses.  Data show that successful migrants are crossing into the U.S. at less traditional and harder-to-access points.  At the height of last year’s crisis, the majority of migrants were surrendering themselves to border officials in the Rio Grande Valley along Texas’ southern-most border.  While apprehension in the Rio Grande control sector have decreased significantly this year, three sectors – Big Bend (Texas), El Paso (Texas and New Mexico), and Yuma (California) – have registered at least double-digit percent increases in both child and family apprehensions.

During Mexican President Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington, President Obama stated that he “very much appreciate[d] Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children [crisis].”  Despite applause from the White House, Mexico’s aggressive border enforcement – driven at least in part by U.S. encouragement and funding – has implications for Mexico’s already problematic human rights record.  While it is true that Mexico’s actions have largely staved off a repeat of last year’s crisis, it has yet to translate into the sort of political bargaining chip the Obama administration has hoped might sway the immigration policy debate in the U.S.  With comprehensive immigration reform legislation long dead and recent executive actions on indefinite hold, the administration apparently hopes that ramped-up enforcement will improve prospects for congressional approval of $1 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle.  But with Mexico’s clampdown blocking another surge of migrants into the U.S., many legislators are likely to question the prudence of pouring more money into corrupt, dysfunctional regional governments.  By backing the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, moreover, the administration is privileging political goals at the expense of humanitarian objectives and is indirectly complicit in blocking thousands of Central American children from accessing lawful forms of relief for which most are likely eligible.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s migrant extortion market continues to boom as vulnerable children and families seek new routes north at the mercy of increasingly brutal transnational networks.

June 4, 2015

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.

Obama’s Deportation Debacle: Time for Executive Action?

By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb

Amid fierce debate over the Obama administration’s record on the deportation of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. without serious criminal records, insiders confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday that the White House is seriously considering unilateral action to reduce deportations.  Preliminary reports suggest that a review of the policy by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson may result in executive action curbing deportations.  Rumors of White House movement on the issue surfaced last week, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus presented Johnson with a memo outlining their demands.  Most notably, they recommended an expansion of the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the elimination of “Secure Communities,” a program initiated during the Bush era that mandates that local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws and which has led to reported abuses.

The increased pressure on the president to further limit forced removals comes at a moment when deportations are on the decline and interior enforcement is at a five-year low.  New statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security (via FOIA requests from The New York Times) and the Department of Justice provide the most comprehensive view to date of an enforcement policy fraught with political miscalculations.  DOJ reports, for example, a 43 percent drop in the number of new deportation cases filed in federal immigration courts in the last five years.  In hopes of gaining credibility and leverage for Democrats in a potential immigration deal, the administration in 2011 reallocated massive enforcement resources to the U.S.-Mexico border.  The plan was to ease interior enforcement that disrupted established families and communities – and ran up deportation numbers in the past – while deporting higher numbers of recent border crossers, who under previous administrations would have been sent home without formal charges.  In the interior, workplace raids all but disappeared, but state and local police, under the Secure Communities program, continued to identify “high-priority offenders.”

The Obama administration’s five-year attempt to placate Republican lawmakers through record-setting deportations has backfired politically, and the collateral damage is high, with nearly 2 million deportations to date and an outraged electoral base.  Though current and former administration officials argue that concerns over public safety and border security have guided immigration enforcement since day one, the evidence suggests that political expedience has driven Obama’s deportation policy and – with midterm elections just around the corner and maneuvering toward the 2016 presidential elections already underway – is likely to continue to do so.  Obama’s eagerness to impress Republicans with his toughness, without any guarantee the maneuver would work, has alienated Hispanic and Asian communities who feel betrayed and whose turnout at the polls is crucial for a Democratic victory.  The leaks of executive action indicate a White House focused on damage control with those important constituencies, while essentially signaling the definitive end of any chance of bipartisan Congressional immigration reform.  Despite some handwringing among American conservatives that the Republicans’ position will lock out Hispanic voters for years to come, most of the party’s leaders appear to give priority to their nativist base.  Obama ultimately may be calculating that, with chances of passage of immigration reform nil anyway, his energy is best spent on rebuilding ties with constituents whose communities have been torn apart by policies pursued during his first five years in office.