Last Wednesday, Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania tried to stop a deportation on Twitter. The senator had been informed about the plight of a Honduran woman and her son who had tried to seek refuge in the United States after hit men killed her cousin in Honduras. She crossed the US/Mexico border in Texas in December 2015, but failed to pass her credible fear interview, which is necessary to seek asylum. After being held at a detention center in Pennsylvania with her son for over a year, she was going to be returned to Honduras that day.
Beginning at 12:05pm—“Twitter: it’s urgent,” he wrote—for the next nine hours he directed tweets at President Trump and his administration, asking for help. He spoke over the phone to Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, who promised to look into the matter. By about 9pm, however, Mr. Casey admitted defeat, saying that the mother and child had been flown back to Honduras, where they faced death threats.
Many Central American migrants such as this Honduran woman—who chose to remain unnamed for fear of reprisals in her home country—have tried to flee the gang violence and political instability that has gripped the Central American region, including El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Tens of thousands of Central Americans have fled northward through Mexico to the US over the last several years. Many try to claim asylum, which is rarely granted. From 2011 to 2016, the New York Times reports, “immigration judges denied from 77 to 83 percent of asylum requests from people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the three countries that send the most Central American asylum seekers, according to data by researchers at Syracuse University.”
Many migrants do not even make it before an immigration judge. To see a judge, asylum seekers must first pass the “credible fear” interview, conducted by an asylum officer who decides whether there is a significant possibility the case will prevail. “I wish this were an exception to the rule,” Swapna Reddy, a co-director of the New York-based Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which worked on this particular case, tells the New York Times. “It is an exception to the rule in that the senator got involved.”
US asylum law was originally developed during the Cold War in part to protect individuals fleeing communist countries, not those fleeing gang violence, although since that time the law has developed significantly. It requires that asylum seekers must show they fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a “particular social group.” Although in 2015 the Obama administration designated female heads of households as a “particular social group,” which may have made it easier for women traveling with children to qualify for asylum, it can be difficult to succeed in an asylum claim where one is fleeing gang violence.
“Asylum does not solve everything,” Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in California and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, tells the New York Times. Although a person may be in physical danger, immigration officers must verify the claim meets legal requirements. “Imagine I’m the judge,” Marks says, “and I have to go through each of these points and show that you have to qualify on each basis.” Asylum approvals are given out unevenly—researchers have found that the likelihood that an asylum seeker will succeed varies enormously depending on which judge hears the case. “You don’t really know what the basis for the asylum officer’s decision is,” Lindsay Nash, an immigration lawyer who teaches at a legal clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, tells the New York Times.
In response to Senator Casey’s tweets, Liz Johnson, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says: “It’s unfortunate that politicians are repeating misleading information and, in the process, demonizing the men and women whose job it is to enforce the laws Congress writes.” Johnson says that the Honduran woman had been deported only after “her claims were denied at multiple levels and she had exhausted all legal remedies available to her.”
Lawyers for this Honduran woman and at least two dozen others detained at the same location have argued that they should get new appointments with asylum officers because their original interviews had been improperly conducted; however, the Federal District Court ruled that it could not review the case, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Others have alleged too that officials at the US-Mexico border have been illegally turning away asylum seekers. A recent report by Human Rights First, an independent advocacy and action organization, provides dozens of examples of officials “providing false information about the law, asking misleading questions or pressuring people to take back statements about fearing persecution, and frustrating lawyers who try to facilitate claims.” The report alleges 125 cases since November 2016 where individuals or families were incorrectly denied the chance to claim asylum, and says that many abuses are not reported because of dangerous conditions, unavailability of legal counsel, and little oversight of CBP officials when they process asylum claims.
The difficulty in obtaining asylum in the US and fear of Trump’s hard-line anti-immigrant policies have led many to seek haven in Canada. Migrants from Somalia, Djibouti, Nigeria, Eritrea, as well as from some Central American countries, have been seeking refuge in increasing numbers under an agreement between the US and Canada called the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows asylum seekers to make their claim if they cross the border illegally. In Emerson, one tiny Canadian town of nearly 700, more than three hundred refugees have crossed the border since January of this year. "Right now," Greg Janzen, the mayor of the town, tells NBC News, "it seems like we have an open border."