Seeking asylum: The migrant caravan and the crisis along the border

by Kathryn Freeman on November 21, 2018 in CLC

In the book of Exodus, a caravan of Israelites set out from Egypt to their new home in Canaan. They faced many challenges on their journey. Some groups along the way met them with kindness, while others failed to offer any grace.

In Deuteronomy 23:4, God bans Ammonites and Moabites from entering the assembly because of their failure to meet the Israelites with food and water in the desert. In Deuteronomy 10, God reminds the Israelites of His love for the foreigner and commands them to love the foreigner because they were once foreigners in Egypt.

Obviously, America is not Israel, and the same prescriptions placed on followers of Christ do not apply to a sovereign nation. Still, we presently face our own caravans. We can apply biblical principles to our personal responses as we seek to think biblically and consider just policy solutions.

Before discussing policy reforms, it is important to understand some basics about the immigration system. As followers of Christ we should not to bear false witness in our speech. Over the last several weeks we have been bombarded with news stories about a “diseased” migrants, “invading hordes,” “terrorists,” and “drug dealers.” These news reports have sensationalized this issue to stoke fear on this side of the border.

This blog post includes basic facts about the process for seeking asylum in the U.S. and how some of those in the migrant caravan might be allowed to legally stay in the U.S. In a second post, I will include some policy ideas that enhance border security and improve the process for seeking asylum.

What is the migrant caravan?

Migrant caravan is a term for a large group of migrants. The word has been in the news in recent weeks because a new caravan of about 5,000 migrants set out from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Oct. 12. They are travelling mostly on foot towards the U.S. southern border. Some have arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, where they plan to wait for an opportunity to present themselves at a port of entry to claim asylum. While this is not the first migrant caravan to set out from Central America, it may be the largest. Last spring, a group of 1,500 migrants set out from Central America, but by the time they reached the U.S. the group was less than a third of its original size.

Why are they travelling in such a large group?

Simply put the caravan provides some safety from traffickers and gangs. For the women, travelling with the group may reduce the likelihood of physical or sexual violence.

Why are they fleeing their home countries?

According to reports from Immigration and Enforcement (ICE), most of those headed to the southern border are coming from Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). Some migrants are fleeing in search of better economic opportunities. Others are fleeing political instability, violence, and conscription into gang activities.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. Due to corruption, there is little protection from extortion, and 95 percent of crimes reported go unprosecuted in some areas. MS-13 and MS-18 are the region's largest gangs. Both were formed in Los Angeles, but their presence grew in Central America in the mid-1990s after large scale deportations from the United States.

The number of asylum seekers coming from Northern Triangle countries has exploded in the last ten years. According to Time Magazine, the number of asylum seekers apprehended by border agents has skyrocketed to about 97,000 -- a 2,000 percent increase from 2008.

The decision to migrate is personal and complicated. Some will decide to stay in their home countries or seek asylum in Mexico, but most are facing circumstances in their home countries most Americans cannot imagine.

What happens when they reach the border?

First, it’s important to distinguish those seeking asylum from traffickers and those migrating for purely economic reasons without proper documents. Seeking asylum is a legal form of immigration. Those migrating for purely economic reasons are not eligible for asylum and once apprehended can be deported for crossing our border illegally.

Asylum is sought by a person inside the United States who is seeking to avoid returning to their home country based on their need for protection from persecution in their country of origin based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.

There are two ways to claim asylum -- affirmatively or defensively. To claim it affirmatively, the applicant must have entered the U.S. on a valid visa.  A defensive claim of asylum is made once a migrant is in immigration court while in deportation proceedings or when presenting themselves at a port of entry without a valid visa.

Most of those arriving from Central America are making defensive applications for asylum and are detained. They must explain to an immigration officer how they have a credible fear of persecution based on the criteria listed above. The immigration officer then determines whether there is a significant possibility they will be eligible for asylum.

Those who do not pass the “credible fear” test are scheduled for deportation proceedings. Those who pass the “credible fear” test may be detained or released while waiting to go before an immigration judge who makes the final determination on the validity of an asylum claim. In 2017, almost 62 percent of asylum cases were denied.

Current policy means most are detained until they can see a judge, but applicants can be released if there is a lack of available detention space. For example, there are currently no detention facilities that can hold fathers and their young children and only three in the country for mothers with young children.

It can take six months to several years before a migrant’s case is heard by an immigration judge. Once asylum has been granted, asylees can legally work in the U.S. and can apply for permanent residency after they have resided in the U.S. for a year.

We are currently living through a global refugee crisis — according to the Office of the UN Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced as they flee war, gang violence, or other life-threatening circumstances. The Northern Triangle is just one global hotspot around the world and many countries are having to grapple with the same issues as the U.S. as this is the largest number of displaced people at any time in modern history.

There are no easy answers and certainly the U.S. cannot take every refugee and asylee who would seek to come here, but in the second part I will look at some possible policy solutions that enhance border security and improve the asylum process for migrants.

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Read more articles in: CLC, Christian Life Commission, Public Policy