Brazil: Politicizing Refugee Policy

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s decision to welcome Venezuelan refugees is based on political calculations — part of President Jair Bolsonaro’s domestic agenda, anti-Maduro policies, and efforts to polish his international image — while asylum-seekers of other nationalities are getting a distinctly colder shoulder. The country’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), which includes representatives of the Executive Branch and civil society, granted refugee status to approximately 37,000 Venezuelans between December and January. As permitted by Brazilian law, CONARE granted them prima facie refugee status — by virtue of the serious and widespread human rights violations in their home country — without requiring individual interviews. It was an unprecedented number, with strong support from the government, and responded to appeals from civil society and academic experts.

  • While the number of Venezuelans in other South American countries is greater, Brazil now has the most officially designated refugees. It previously had only a little more than an estimated 5,000 refugees of all nationalities — one-eighth its current total.
  • A generous refugee policy has been a key element of Brazilian foreign policy since the 1990s, often the subject of officials’ speeches in UN contexts. The current Administration’s rhetoric, however, has been different. While visiting India in 2019, Bolsonaro criticized a Brazilian law passed in 2017 (when, he claimed, he was the only deputy to cast a dissenting vote) that liberalized the country’s policies toward migrants — constituting a law in which foreigners would not be seen as threats to Brazilian society and also impacted the reality of refugees.

The recent decision to accept tens of thousands of Venezuelans appears motivated by the Bolsonaro Administration’s opposition to Venezuelan President Maduro — as well as Brazil’s left-leaning parties — more than by the humanitarian ideal of helping people fleeing crisis.

  • The Ministry of Justice has argued that non-Venezuelan arrivals are a security threat and need greater control. It introduced a legal regulation that increased control and facilitated the expulsion and deportation of foreigners, with some provisions that specialists claimed to be contrary to Brazilian laws. The regulation was revoked but made clear that the agency will continue to emphasize the security dynamic created by the entry of foreigners.
  • Minister of Justice Sergio Moro recently sent a message on social media stating that “Brazil will no longer be a refuge for foreigners accused or convicted of common crimes” [emphasis added]. With prior approval of CONARE, he rejected an appeal by three Paraguayans, who received refuge in Brazil in 2003 but were recently facing removal, and maintained the revocation of their refugee status.
  • Critics cite Moro’s use of social media to announce a technical decision as confirmation that his intention was primarily political. They note the ideological affinity between the current Brazilian and Paraguayan governments as being more important than the asylees’ previously determined well-founded fear of persecution — a violation of international law regarding non-refoulement. Critics also point out that the three Paraguayans were politically active with left-leaning groups opposed to Bolsonaro.

The contrast between the government’s and Moro’s attitudes toward asylum-seekers from Venezuela and elsewhere is striking. When confronted with evidence of rising crime by Venezuelan arrivals along the Brazilian border, the Minister said local authorities’ evidence was inconclusive. Bolsonaro’s supporters in the border state of Roraima protested Moro’s statement, but a subsequent decision to close the border for 15 days to foreigners without a permanent residence permit — allegedly in response to the threat of coronavirus — has calmed their concerns.

The CONARE decision on Venezuelans may have been intended in part to remove a glut that had slowed the entire refugee system, but the disparity in the treatment of asylum-seekers primarily reflects Brazil’s deep political polarization. Government discourse portrays its domestic opponents as being irresponsible leftists akin to Venezuelan President Maduro, who is so bad that starving refugees show up on Brazil’s doorstep, while praising rightist governments, to which even 17-year asylees can be repatriated without concern for their treatment. The Brazilian military’s deep involvement in operations regarding Venezuela also incentivizes civilians to help keep the status of refugees from becoming a political embarrassment.

  • Politicization of refugee policies and implementation is not unprecedented in Brazil. CONARE, the Brazilian government, and, indirectly, the UNHCR will determine how long this trend will continue. Altering Brazilian action to meet current political interests weakens the rights of refugees and related protective principles embodied in the Constitution and legislation.

March 23, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow and professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR).

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

Mexican Migration Crackdown Creates a “Wall” Before the Wall

By Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson*

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo/ Adam Isacson, WOLA

Facing U.S. threats to impose potentially steep tariffs on Mexican goods last June, Mexico has adopted a series of measures along its southern border with Guatemala that, while somewhat effective at stopping the flow, seems a partial solution with high financial and political costs.

  • Mexican authorities’ apprehensions of migrants in June, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his threats, reached 31,416. Captures that month and in July were three times greater than the same period in 2018. (The total of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended by the United States and Mexico last year is estimated to be more than a million.)
  • Mexico deployed nearly 12,000 of its newly minted National Guard troops to the southern border states with Guatemala. Many identify themselves to visitors as “soldiers”; appear to have little (or no) specialized training for migrant interdiction; and wear military uniforms with black armbands that read “GN.” The Guard, however, has not reduced criminal activities against migrants. Local and international experts report that criminal elements assault, rob, rape and kidnap people transiting the area and prosecutors’ offices take little action to investigate these criminal attacks. Observers report that coyotes, working with corrupt officials, arrange safe passage for many migrants on designated “safe buses” for up to US$2,600 per person.
  • Local observers say the enhanced operations have largely shut down what was the most transited of the four main routes through which migrants have traveled in recent times, but some people are learning to take alternate routes through puntos ciegos (blind spots) where government patrols don’t often go and where risks for migrants can be greater. One such corridor, in central Chiapas, seems to continue to be exploited robustly.

The Mexican government has been reluctant to deal with the consequences of its acquiescence to Washington’s demands, according to numerous border-area observers. At its peak, the aggressive patrolling filled detention centers to far over capacity (some at 300 percent capacity) with poor health conditions and alleged mistreatment. Apart from the members of the National Migration Institute’s Citizen Council, officials have restricted independent monitoring of detention facilities by human rights groups and migration specialists. The country’s refugee agency is on the verge of collapse, yet the Mexican government has yet to allocate sufficient resources to it. Over the course of 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received over 70,000 asylum requests – more than double in 2018 – but its 2020 budget is a mere US$2.35 million (4 percent of UNHCR’s budget for Mexico operations).

  • The U.S. push has put the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in a bind. On his first day in office, he signed a decree with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – from which the vast majority of migrants come – to address the underlying causes of the migration. Another agreement was reached with El Salvador, to fund programs to preserve and create jobs in agriculture. While the Mexican government has not left behind the focus on reducing the “push” factors of migration, it has been largely put on the back burner.

The Mexican government has put managing U.S. relations ahead of addressing the strategic migration problems it faces. It did not push back when the Trump administration announced it would be returning U.S.-bound asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their hearings through the “Remain in Mexico” program, and under the threat of steadily rising tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican goods, it has largely complied with nearly all U.S. demands. The results have been mixed, and the costs have been high.

  • Sources in the southern border region report that the National Guard deployment and other Mexican actions over the past seven months have reduced – although estimates range from “not very significantly” to “probably just around 30 percent” – the number of Central American migrants arriving in Mexico. Shelters are not as full as they were in mid-2019, but several remain very full. Data on other nationalities is sketchy, but anecdotal information indicates that Cubans, Haitians, and even Africans continue to find their way to shelters in the area.
  • In complying with U.S. demands, AMLO and his government have risked violating some of their fundamental stated values. AMLO had campaigned on independence, transparency and improved human rights, but the border deployments of the National Guard represent a further militarization of Mexico’s border security strategy – with a significant risk of human rights violations – and the detention of fearful Central Americans and extra-continental migrants in substandard conditions.

January 17, 2020

* Maureen Meyer is Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Adam Isacson is WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. The full text of their report is at The “Wall” Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border.”

Latin America: Grappling with Environmental Displacement

The Honduran refugee caravan crowds a bridge in October 2018

Honduran Refugee Caravan/ October 21, 2018/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/boyitchy/31600503428/

By Robert Albro*

Latin America and its faith-based organizations, seeking to expand the definition of refugee beyond just people forced to leave their countries in the face of political persecution, are making slow but steady progress promoting policies that deal with the increasingly serious issue of human displacement as a consequence of environmental change.

  • Since 1951, a large majority of Latin American countries have enshrined the right to asylum in their national constitutions, and the region emerged in the 1980s as a leader in efforts to broaden international standards for refugees and migrants. In 1984, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, for example, enlarged the concept of refugees to include people “who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence.” A series of conferences organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) produced further breakthroughs during conferences in San José and San Salvador, including rights-based criteria involving, for example, gender and indigenous identity.

Over this decade, the coincidence of surges in migration from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America and international action on the environment – including Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si – have encouraged reassessment of the traditional distinction between “refugee” and “migrant.” Among similar initiatives in the Andean region, in 2014 Bolivia’s migration law introduced legal protections for “groups of people displaced from one country to another for climate reasons, when there exists a risk to life, as a result of nature, environmental, nuclear or chemical disaster, or famine.” What to do about people displaced across international borders as a result of life-threatening rapid-onset natural disasters has become an increasing focus of attention.

  • Discussions in conjunction with the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a major component of the 2016 Paris Accord – have given new momentum to addressing environmental migration. Participants called for greater understanding of “climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation,” even though emphasis in multilateral deliberations has shifted to “disasters” and away from “climate change.” 
  • Observers have credited Latin American church groups – as “specialists in the language of ethics” and “sources of moral authority” – with playing an important role in normative deliberations during the UNFCCC processes. A hemispheric dialogue led by the Organization of American States, called the “Protecting Our Home” initiative, was jointly launched with the Holy See after the Pope’s encyclical.

Faith-based responses both to environmental conflict and to the plight of migrants have been significant. Religion’s impact upon international deliberations regarding environmental migration is likely to continue growing as long as religious values are translatable to secular humanitarian efforts. Even when members of religious communities are lumped in with the rest of “civil society,” their emphasis on moral values, their ability to intervene on behalf of affected populations, and their role as service providers serve them well as proponents of efforts to include victims of environmental disaster and climate change as deserving recognition and support from governments and the international community. The “moral authority of faith leaders” is also less about the introduction of alternative moral valuations than a strategic advantage in efforts to gain access to and build trust with victims of humanitarian emergencies. 

  • There is, however, an additional role that faith-based actors have yet to embrace as the international response to increasing numbers of environmental migrants evolves. As multilateral deliberations increasingly consider “loss and damage” as a result of environmental disasters, including climate change, they are unsurprisingly limited to accounting for the loss of livelihoods and material assets, such as farms or homes. To date, little attention has been given to the consequences of non-economic or intangible loss, including loss of community identity, social cohesion, and traditional knowledge. Religion’s focus on moral and cultural questions of meaning and value make it a potential resource in coming to terms with the consequences of intangible loss. 

November 1, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

Building Walls, Closing the Border: Not the Answer

By Ernesto Castañeda with Maura Fennelly*

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

U.S. Border Patrol stands watch during border fence reinforcement / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/44997385775/in/photostream/

Trump is widely thought to have originated the call for a wall to keep out migrants, but animosity toward Latin Americans has deep roots in U.S. history and political discourse – and the tough task of reversing it is long overdue. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush criminalized migration and secured funds to build fences and militarize the border. President Obama also oversaw the deportation of over 2 million migrants, some of whom ended up in camps on military bases.

Immigration remains one of the most debated issues, and immigration policies have a profound impact on families and communities with foreign-born members. Many long-time residents and some politicians see immigration as a cultural threat and are opposed to it. In Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States, we trace the building of symbolic and physical walls between white Americans and Latin people. Boundary formation occurs at three levels:

  • Categorical thinking. The modern nation-state rests on the assumption that exclusion is necessary to protect the welfare of citizens. Migrants can be viewed as a threat to the autonomy of the nation. Immigrants can be “naturalized” and offered full citizen rights, but this assumes that they must change to fit in. One of the main narratives driving strict border surveillance is that migrants will negatively affect the economy, despite research continuing to show that long-term employment rates of American citizens’ are not harmed by immigration. Low-skilled wages are barely affected by immigrants entering the American workforce.
  • Anti-immigrant speech. Minority populations, including immigrants, have been subject to an increase in hate crimes since the 2016 election. White Nationalist groups use social media and the public sphere to disseminate anti-immigrant views. Members of a splinter militia group – the Minutemen American Defense – killed nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in 2009 (and were convicted in 2011). The Minutemen, while declining in membership, have inspired the creation of smaller border patrol groups.
  • Immigration as an experience. Despite some political leaders’ claims of insecurity at the border, U.S. cities right next to Mexico are safe. Research shows that most border-area residents enjoy being next to Mexico. Across the nation, moreover, a vast majority – about 75 percent – believe that immigration is good for the United States. Nonetheless, Latin American migrants still struggle to find a home and a sense of belonging. In interviews, we find that many experience “social invisibility” – a feeling of existing in significant numbers while being unrecognized as full members. Interviews with undocumented migrants we conducted in El Paso reveal that over 75 percent reported that employers, landlords, and neighbors threatened to use their undocumented status against them. These experiences affect migrants’ well-being and mental health.

While the United States maintains durable inequalities between white Americans, Latin people, and other marginalized groups, the historical and social forces shaping our immigration narrative can be changed so that we empathize with, and no longer demonize, people who are looking for a home. Trump’s efforts to expand existing walls and build new ones are central to his strategy. He led the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and declared a national emergency because Congress would not fund it as he wished. However, his threats to close the border, impose tariffs, and other drastic actions show ignorance of the major impact these actions would have on the United States’ access to inexpensive agricultural, industrial, and technological products from Mexico. A border closure would not be sustainable beyond a few days. While polls show that 41 percent of people in the United States support the construction of Trump’s border wall, a majority of Americans know that more walls would not work.

  • The United States does not need a border wall with Mexico. The misleading and inaccurate claims made by politicians about Latin immigrants only further divide the nation – and obscure the positive contribution of Latin Americans, their experiences, identities, and cultures.

July 2, 2019

Ernesto Castañeda teaches sociology at American University and is the author of Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States. Maura Fennelly is a graduate from American University and works with a housing assistance organization in Chicago.

Mexico: Has AMLO Compromised on Human Dignity?

By Alexandra Délano*

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a meeting in 2018, during which U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo was present

Mexican Foreign Secretary- designate Marcelo Ebrard participates in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Mexico City on October 19, 2018. State Department photo/ Wikimedia Commons

Mexico has always negotiated with the United States from a position of weakness – it depends on its northern neighbor economically and politically more than the other way around – but the recent negotiations, compromising its commitment to human dignity in exchange for avoiding tariffs, may be among the worst outcomes. Tariffs on Mexican products would surely be costly for Washington, as business leaders and Republican legislators have stated recently, but the much greater economic threat is to Mexico. As a result, Mexico has consistently sought to keep the issue of migration separate from trade and other priorities – a delinking that both countries have accepted for the sake of advancing economic integration.

  • Trump has destabilized that tacit agreement by asserting that maintaining the status quo in commercial relations will depend on new steps by Mexico to support expansion of barriers on its northern border, to better control its southern border, and to stop the flow of migrants from Central America. In addition to imposing the tariffs, Trump threatened to abandon the newly negotiated North American Trade Agreement (“USMCA”) and even to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opted for a strategy of minimizing confrontation with Trump. This has implied concessions such as accepting the return of persons awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. courts. Even though this policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or Quédate en México), is not in an official agreement, and even though it does not go to the extreme of establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” – which would obligate migrants to claim asylum in Mexico instead of having the option of continuing their journey to the United States – it is an attempt to appease Trump and maintain the fragile balance in the relationship.
  • AMLO has taken other steps to placate Trump. For example, Mexico and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL) recently announced a development plan for Central America that, although limited in scope and without apparent funding, is an important step towards addressing root causes of migration in the region.

AMLO’s government negotiated to increase its control of the southern border and to continue to host asylum-seekers awaiting a court hearing in the United States. It did so in the absence of an integrated migration strategy, and without a commitment to invest resources, at a time when the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) was just cut 20 percent. The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is also ill-positioned to assume a greater role without addressing its need for the resources and measures necessary to root out corruption and reduce its over-reliance on detention and deportation. Officials from these organizations were not even included in the negotiations – further reflecting the lack of vision and interagency coordination on the migration challenges. Not surprisingly, the INM Commissioner resigned days after the agreement was announced.

  • Mexico’s policies also appear to neglect the need to strengthen multilateral mechanisms to compensate for its weakness in the face of U.S. pressure. Mexico has traditionally been one of the most active promoters of multilateral agreements on cooperation on migration issues, including the Global Compact on Migration approved last year, but it appears unable to build on these accomplishments to either counterbalance Trump’s pressures or guide an internal policy on what to do. It has also failed to build support among G20 allies, including Canada – its second most important trading partner and a player in the extractive activities implicated in driving emigration and internal displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s migration policy at this point is very far from the ideals laid out by López Obrador. His primary concern has been to pursue the impossible goal of containing Trump without harming other interests. Above nationalist posturing – claims that Mexico will never negotiate away its dignity – is the need to protect the dignity of persons. A migration policy that prioritizes migration control and that is based on the mood swings of the United States’ government does not meet this basic criterion. It leaves Mexico in the same weak, isolated position from which it cannot negotiate agreements on labor mobility, humanitarian protection, and economic development. Mexico seems to have made a strategic error in response to Trump’s most recent tantrum – one likely to reoccur under even more challenging conditions as the 2020 election nears.

June 25, 2019

* Alexandra Délano is chair of the Global Studies Department at the New School in New York City. This article is adapted from her essay in El País on June 5, Lo que está en juego en las negociaciones con Estados Unidos: la dignidad humana.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S. Immigration: Lacking Lawyers, Newcomers Join the Undocumented

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Immigration court backlog

Pending cases from the Northern Triangle in U.S. immigration courts. These cases now account for over 53% of the total backlog. / Note: FY 2018 data is through July 31. / Data source: TRAC, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/.

As Central Americans swell the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts, the tens of thousands of them who do not have lawyers are joining the ranks of the country’s undocumented population.

  • The immigration court system lacks the resources to keep pace with the influx of unaccompanied children and families from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The backlog of cases has more than doubled since 2013 – from 350,000 to over 764,000 as of August – with cases involving people from these three countries now accounting for more than half of them.  The wait for a hearing is now several years, and pro bono or low-cost attorneys are overburdened.
  • Many thousands of other newcomers – lacking information and the ability to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and fear – are not looking for legal assistance, and they remain unaware that representation is critical to their chances of legally staying in the United States. Migrants without an attorney are far less likely to appear in court, and many – nearly 40 percent (or 103,000) of all Central Americans whose cases were filed in 2013-17 and have been decided– are ordered deported “in absentia” just for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing.  Immigrants with an outstanding removal order who are apprehended are subject to expedited deportation without judicial review, meaning that – again, without a lawyer – they will be returned to their home countries without ever having the legal merit of their claims evaluated.

Nonprofit community-based organizations across the country are mobilizing resources – often in collaboration with local governments and pro bono partners – to address these people’s legal needs, but a report* by CLALS reveals that access to counsel varies widely.

  • Access remains inadequate even in large receiving destinations like the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where robust legal service infrastructures have developed in response to decades of immigration. In less traditional destinations, like North and South Carolina, only around a quarter of juveniles are represented in immigration proceedings.  In addition to geographical disparities, newcomers face differing odds of securing an attorney depending on their nationality.  Less than half of Central American minors nationwide have an attorney.  Based on a review of decided cases initiated in 2013-17, Salvadoran juveniles were more than twice as likely to be represented than their Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts, probably a reflection of the extent their communities are organized.

President Trump is justified in claiming that the immigration courts are inefficient – cases take an average of almost two years – but his proposal (tweeted on June 24) is to restore “Law and Order” and to “immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring [migrants] back from where they came.”  His deeper dissatisfaction appears to be with a legal process that requires the impartial application of U.S. law – which for the majority of Central Americans fortunate enough to have an attorney results in a grant of legal status.  While this outcome may be unacceptable to the president, many localities across the United States have recognized the social and economic costs of destabilizing families and communities, and of depriving immigrant community members of due process.  Trump may hope that denying due process will dissuade individuals from entering or remaining in the United States, but the crisis in the U.S. immigration adjudication system is likely to remain serious, and tens or even hundreds of thousands more newcomers are likely to join the millions of immigrants already living in the shadows.

October 16, 2018

*The full report, “Newcomer Central American Immigrants’ Access to Legal Services,” is available for download here.  No registration is necessary.  The report is the first in a series generated as part of the project by CLALS in collaboration with the University of Houston, “The Impact of Central American Child and Family Migration on U.S. Communities,” led by Eric Hershberg and Jodi Berger Cardoso.

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.