Immigration Decoded

Published — November 30, 2018

Images of migrant throngs are real, but so are individual life-or-death stories

People carry children through flood waters after a heavy rain inundated the sports complex where thousands of Central Americans are camping out, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Analysis: Trump chief of staff John Kelly once said parents were trying to “save their children” by getting them out of Central America. 


People read what they feel into images of the Central American caravan crowded up against gateways into the United States. The president of the United States has reacted by calling migrants “invaders” and deploying the military, part and parcel of a bruising anti-immigrant agenda he’s pursued since kicking off his campaign in 2016.   

But just three years ago, in May 2015, it was none other than Gen. John Kelly—President Trump’s chief of staff—who acknowledged that Central America was suffering through a crisis of violence that sparked much of the exodus.

Back then, Kelly was head of the military’s U.S. Southern Command in Florida. In public remarks he made that year, Kelly attributed the flow of unaccompanied Central American minors already heading to the United States directly to Americans’ consumption of cartel-supplied drugs.

“In many ways [parents] are trying to save their children” by helping them vacate the unsafe region, Kelly said, as reported by the Navy Times. His assessment mirrors the pleas being made right now by many parents with children who are struggling to reach the United States to plead for asylum.

To be sure, none of the lawyers I’ve spoken to who are circulating among migrants gathering near U.S. ports of entry in Tijuana believe that all of them will meet the threshold for asylum: Applicants must face threats due to political views, national origin, ethnicity, religion or membership in a persecuted “social group,” a category that has included homosexuals and women in some countries.

Advocates also know that patience is running thin among residents of Tijuana and other northern Mexican cities where migrants have congregated.  

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But as Mary Bauer, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told me, she’s met quite a few individuals who have reasonable claims that they face dire threats. “One girl I spoke with saw her father killed in front of her,” Bauer said. “Another was a gay guy who was walking in flip flops, and who’d faced a lot of threats. This the human story. Every person has a story.”

To step up to human crises, post-World War II U.S. asylum laws do require that U.S. officials at least consider asylum requests. The terms of asylum were developed following the infamous 1939 rejection of more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis who were turned away from  asylum in Cuba, Canada and the United States. More than 250 of those passengers forced to return to Europe were later killed by Nazis.  A 1939 opinion poll found that 61 percent of Americans opposed a proposal to accept 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Germany into the United States.

No one has a guarantee to asylum, Bauer said, but today there is a right to apply, either at a port of entry or once inside the United States.

Even so, the Trump administration, according to Bauer and other lawyers, has erected multiple barriers designed to dissuade Latin American migrants from exercising that right.

For example, among the blitz of immigration-related lawsuits that have hit Trump officials, a complaint filed in July 2017 by the SPLC and other organizations accuses Customs and Border Protection of violating U.S. law with a deliberate “turnback policy” affecting migrants.  

The suit outlines how a “metering” system started by U.S. and Mexican personnel—and the long waiting lists associated with that system—is leading to the admission of just a trickle of people daily to start an initial interview process; the slow admissions are creating a pile-up of thousands of migrants who’ve been in shelters or on streets in Mexican border cities for weeks, even months. Some are camping out, with children, and are exposed to assaults and other danger in Mexican cities afflicted by cartel violence.    

The administration argues that it’s struggling with a backlog of more than 300,000 asylum cases that go on for years, and that it lacks processing resources at the border. But just days before the Nov. 6 midterm election, Trump ordered an unprecedented deployment of more than 5000 active-duty troops to the border that could cost $300 million by year’s end.  The SPLC lawsuit argues that Trump’s own language is evidence that the real reason for the slow border processing of migrants is discrimination and a desire to circumvent U.S. asylum law.

“President Trump,” the suit says, “offered a public, full-throated and racially discriminatory defense of his administration’s aggressive implementation of …denying access to the asylum process, by referring to asylum seekers as ‘criminals’ and ‘animals’ seeking to ‘infest’ and ‘invade’ the United States, and by specifically stating, via tweet, that the United States …must ‘escort them back without going through years of legal maneuvering.’ ”

Trump’s position, though, connects with Americans who buy into arguments that the United States is afflicted with an “immigration crisis,” although the estimated undocumented population in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, according to a report this week by the Pew Research Center. The  financial crisis that began in 2007 and the subsequent recession were a major cause in a drop of new Mexican immigration, along with a brewing hostile climate.  

Trump also has spent ample time, at rallies and in tweets, attacking immigrants with his rhetoric. He’s focused repeatedly on crimes committed by immigrants—a demographic that in reality does not commit a disproportionate number of crimes—and he’s also pleased rally goers by falsely blaming immigrants for driving down U.S. wages, as the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported.  

Trump will get some agreement, though, from migrant supporters who argue that our hemisphere needs to address the root cause of the exodus of people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala Americans — namely, some of the highest murder rates in the world.

San Francisco immigration law professor Bill Hing told me earlier this year that he was compelled to not only teach and write but return to directing a deportation defense clinic to aid Central Americans. “These people are in bad shape,” he said. “We are just not prepared in this country to admit we have a refugee crisis in our own hemisphere.”

As lawsuits such as the SPLC’s complaint outline, crimes that victimize Central Americans (and some Mexicans, too) stem from the corrosive impact of both transnational drug smuggling rings and more locally-based gangs that prey mostly on powerless working-class people.

In Guatemala in 2014, more than 100 bus drivers alone were murdered by extortion rings. More recently, at least 18 Guatemalan Maya indigenous environmental activists or journalists clashing with mining, logging and other interests have been murdered this year. 

In 2014, we reported on the saga of Maria, a teen who crossed the border to join her dad in Los Angeles, whose best friend was hacked to death—she identified her body—and then went on to face a daunting asylum application system.

In contrast to criminal court, asylum applicants are not entitled to the appointment of counsel in immigration court. But if they are lucky enough to gain access to lawyers, applicants’ odds of winning a claim rise to five out of 10 rather than 1 out of 10 for applicants without legal aid.

I used to report regularly in Central America and I saw first-hand the spike of violence that compels victims to choose to go on the run. It’s not as easy to be dismissive when you talk to these people face-to-face.

Sandra Zayas, a brave prosecutor I met in 2004 in Guatemala City, spoke with me about prosecuting sex crimes and crimes against children, acts that are often linked to gangs.  Her job came with great risks and didn’t provide life insurance—reasons why some prosecutors shied away from going after violent gangsters.

At the time I met her, Zayas was prosecuting killers of two teen sisters murdered because the elder, 14, spurned a young gangster who Zayas said himself was psychologically damaged by violence.   

Another Guatemalan I met during that visit was Driqs Godoy de Leon, 19, who was attending a friend’s funeral—he’d been shot—and who was attempting to dodge gangs that forcibly recruit children.

Driqs pointed to a passing jet overhead, as family and friends sobbed over his friend’s casket, and asked me if I couldn’t help him fly away to safety. I found out just two months later that he too had been shot dead.  

After meeting Driqs, I spoke with a U.S. Justice Department official, a former FBI agent in a closet-like office outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. He was developing after-school programs to deter kids from gangs. He smiled ruefully when asked if he thought it would be effective. He knew that so much more would be required to strengthen job opportunities and the justice system.

In “America First” America, many say Central America is not their problem. There was a time, though, when the United States exclusively charted the region’s future, propping up oligarchs who pampered American corporations in the region.  

During the Cold War, the U.S. government helped engineer the 1954 overthrow of a democratically Guatemalan president because the CIA considered him a threat. The U.S. went on to use Honduras as a military base, and pour billions of dollars of weaponry and training into regimes vowing to defeat  leftwing insurgencies. The results included atrocities few in the United States talk about today: Salvadoran troops with U.S.-supplied arms murdered American nuns in El Salvador and committed the 1981 El Mazote massacre of 800 men, women and children in one single village.

In 1989, I visited a camp in southern Mexico that hosted 100,000 Guatemalan indigenous refugees who’d fled into Mexico to escape brutal U.S.-supported counterinsurgency campaigns that were indiscriminately killing people. Mexico ran the camps with United Nations support during prolonged conflict that claimed 200,000 lives.

Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees during those wars were disproportionately rejected by U.S. immigration judges when they applied for refuge here from countries whose regimes the U.S. was supporting. That pattern, though, led to a successful lawsuit claiming discrimination that gave many Central Americans after 1990 a second chance at officially obtaining asylum here.  

Ironically, gang culture in Central America was imported back into Central America from the United States, from the streets of Los Angeles where Central Americans banded together for protection at a time when feuds between the Crips and Bloods and crack dealing were ravaging inner-cities.

Today, the idea of sending someone back to a country where they could face death weighs heavily on asylum officers and judges who review migrant bids to win refuge. But Los Angeles immigration judge Ashley Tabaddor said the moral burden feels even heavier in the wake of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposing deadlines and case quotas on judges.

(Sessions earlier this year also took action to squelch arguments that victims of domestic abuse and gang threats to women can qualify a person for asylum as part of a persecuted “social group” a government is failing to protect.”)  

The asylum system is backlogged, but Sessions’ quotas jeopardize justice and mean that judges could have an average of only 2 ½ hours to complete a case, Tabaddor said in an address in September as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.   

The quotas are part of a “new and dark era,” Tabaddor said. She noted that many asylum applicants do not have lawyers and “have suffered trauma and are plainly overwhelmed.”

“We are dealing,” she said, “with human beings.” 

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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