August 17, 2018
The separation of Central American families at the border is the latest chapter in the long history of the United States’ refusal to protect those escaping the very conditions caused by its political and economic intervention in the region. Disregarding push factors fueling migration from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala–including gang victimization and homicide rates rivaling those of active war zones–the Trump administration discredits Central Americans’ asylum claims by: eliminating pathways for safe and legal migration; criminalizing unauthorized border crossings by reframing legitimate protections in U.S. law for asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children as so-called “loopholes” that allegedly incentivize migrants to cheat the system; and narrowing the interpretation of the refugee definition in the U.S. asylum process.
Since 2015, I have been studying the experiences of Central Americans who arrive in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. I shadowed immigration attorneys and paralegals in Los Angeles as they prepared dozens of asylum applications. I also interviewed 30 unaccompanied minors and 18 advocates working with this population. I find that with no means to migrate legally, these youths had no choice but to brave dangerous conditions alone or secure costly smuggling services to reach safety in the U.S.; once here, however, they face several challenges in the asylum process.
In 2015, former President Obama created a safe and legal migration pathway with the Central American Minors (CAM) program, establishing quotas to resettle 13,000 unaccompanied minors (in 2015 and 2016) whose parents had legal status in the U.S. and who passed a refugee status determination process in their countries of origin. Not only did these quotas pale in comparison to the 75,280 unaccompanied minors who arrived spontaneously during those years, but the numbers of actual arrivals through CAM were much lower than the quotas allowed for. Indeed, most youths I met could not afford to wait for in-country approval–a process that could last up to one year–because their lives were in immediate danger, or they were ineligible for CAM either because their parents were undocumented or because they were migrating to join relatives other than their parents who instead remained in the home country.
Despite these limitations, CAM represented an important step the right direction. For the first time, it included Central Americans in U.S. resettlement quotas. It acknowledged that U.S. policies make family reunification impossible for many Central Americans who are long-term residents but still only have temporary statuses and that reunification safeguards children from persecution in their home countries. When Trump took office, however, he terminated the CAM program, stating that asylum-seekers should “wait in line” instead of arriving at the border while he eliminated the only existing “line.”
Central Americans applying for asylum in U.S. territory already faced numerous difficulties under Obama. Many were unable to provide proof to substantiate claims. Children experienced difficulty disclosing traumatic events or possessed limited knowledge because caretakers shielded them from painful information. Accounts of persecution had to be presented in ways that satisfied U.S. interpretations of the refugee definition, and cases based on forcible gang recruitment were particularly difficult to win. Attorney General Sessions’ recent decision to eliminate domestic violence and gang persecution–the main reasons Central Americans flee– as valid grounds for asylum has further narrowed the refugee definition, mandating asylum officers and immigration judges to deny them political recognition as refugees.
Scholars argue that individuals who escape life-threating violence –including both biological and social existence– are refugees. The accounts youths shared with me position them clearly as refugees, calling into question Trump’s harmful policies and providing evidence for the need to expand and streamline protective measures like CAM.
At 15-years-of-age, Sofia fled immediate threats to her life in Guatemala. She was hospitalized with a broken leg after gang members beat her and threatened to kill her and her family if she did not join the gang. In her abusive household, Sofia had little support and protection, so when she could walk again, she left without telling anyone. She “fought along the journey,” by working and begging for money, and asking other migrants for directions. It took her six months to make her way to Los Angeles to reunite with her brother.
Also at age 15, Brayan fled a slow social death in Honduras. As a respite from the severe child abuse suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father, he dreamt of migrating to the U.S. His troubles at home compounded when an encounter with gangs nearly cost him his life. He hid at his cousin’s house for one year —the time it took to locate his brother in the U.S., organize, and finance his trip. For youths in hiding, social death means lives confined to crowded houses, months of interrupted schooling, and the depression that accompanies the realization that their lives would amount to nothing if they stayed.
Brayan and Sofia applied for asylum in Los Angeles, hoping to satisfy, not the scholarly refugee definition, but the more stringent one of U.S. asylum law. Last time I heard from them, in 2017, their cases were pending. I hope theirs were among the 64% of unaccompanied minors’ cases the Anaheim asylum office granted–higher than the national average (39.5%). My fieldwork is filled with uncertainties and preoccupations as I oftentimes lose touch with youths awaiting results. When I learn the outcomes of petitions, the news is not always good.
Alejandro was 17 but looked younger and fragile, his eyes filled with a deep sorrow. When we interviewed him for his asylum application, sobbing, he recounted the death of his best friend, 15-year-old Daniel, “I told him to wait for me to go get help but he told me not to leave him alone, he was afraid they would come back. I took him in my arms, and he died like that.” Commuting through rival territory had signaled Daniel as a potential informant; MS-13 shot and murdered him that day. When Alejandro testified in El Salvador, the police failed to protect him. He fled when the gang threatened his life because he dared denounce them.
We cried with Alejandro. Miles away from danger, its repercussions were still very much alive: his friend’s voice plagued his nightmares. After we submitted his asylum application, in 2015, Alejandro disappeared. After failing to appear in immigration court–something only 5% of minors with legal representation did–he was ordered deported in absentia. Would the asylum office have granted him protection? Did he disappear because it was too painful to recount his story over and over? Did relatives convince him–like I have heard from others– not to waste his time in the capricious asylum process?
I can only speculate why Alejandro absconded during the Obama years when asylum-seekers’ fear was not as strong as it is now. His story gives me pause and renewed concern today as I reflect on the important question of asylum-seekers’ trust in U.S. law and institutions. As the current administration violates the human rights of Central Americans, undermines asylum and the rule of law, and eliminates options for safe passage while criminalizing illegal crossings, I ask myself, how many more like Alejandro will abandon their claims? How many more will abscond to live prolonged social deaths in the U.S.–this time as undocumented immigrants deprived of rights– while risking deportations that could end their lives?