Refugees, asylum and U.S. history — Time for a change of heart

Tens of thousands of children from Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala are fleeing violence in their home countries. Some have sought safe haven in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. More than 57,000 have entered the United States since October. Kevin, one of the 57,000, describes why he left his home in Honduras:

“My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’” Children on the Run report from UNHCR

Refugees from Sudan and South Sudan flee violence between warring factions. Refugees from Somalia flee the violence of Al-Shabab, in a country where the government is incapable of protecting its citizens. A teenager named Alfonso describes a similar situation in El Salvador:

“The problem was that where I studied there were lots of M-18 gang members, and where I lived was under control of the other gang, the MS-13. The M-18 gang thought I belonged to the MS-13. They had killed the two police officers who protected our school. They waited for me outside the school. It was a Friday, the week before Easter, and I was headed home. The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one.” Children on the Run report from UNHCR

U.S. and international laws recognize refugees. War refugees flee Syria and Gaza and Somalia. Political refugees from Egypt or Cuba. The United Nations processes refugees into camps, giving them temporary shelter and certifying their status. Turkey and Jordan each host more than 600,000 refugees right now.

The United States, far from the war zones in Somalia and Sudan and Syria and Gaza, graciously allows a maximum of 70,000 refugees to enter the country each year. U.S. law specifies that refugees are in danger of persecution because of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin. The overall 70,000 per year quota is subdivided into regional limits on the number of refugees — 15,000 from Africa this year; 1,000 from Europe; 14,000 from East Asia; 33,000 from the Near East and South Asia; and 5,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most of the refugees admitted to the United States are pre-screened and certified by the United Nations. Many spend years in camps waiting for a chance for a permanent home. It’s also possible — though much more difficult — for individuals to apply for refugee status from outside the United States.

If a person gets across the border into the United States — whether traveling on a tourist visa or crossing with no visa, like the current wave of children — she or he can apply for asylum. Asylum is basically the same as refugee status, except that the application is made from inside the United States. About 20,000 people are granted political asylum each year.

What will happen when Central American children apply for asylum? Will their petitions be granted? Will they even get a fair hearing?

The history of U.S. refugee policies gives scant reason for optimism.

In 1939, the United States turned away the S.S. St. Louis, a ship with 900 Jews fleeing Hitler’s persecution. Forced to return, some found refuge in other European countries but 254 of the passengers were killed in German concentration camps. U.S. policy was shaped both by strict immigration quotas and by U.S. anti-semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

U.S. refugee policy softened after World War II. The first laws allowed resettlement of European war refugees, and then of refugees from Communist countries during the Cold War. In 1975, a law allowed entrance of Vietnam War refugees. The focus remained on refugees from Communist countries — primarily the Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, and Cuba.

The most recent available U.S. government records show that as of June 2014, the United States had admitted 3,116 refugees from Cuba during this fiscal year. The only other Latin American refugees admitted were 222 from Colombia — none from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

What of the children? Even leaving aside the limits on the number of refugee or asylum petitions granted each year, can they show persecution that qualifies under the law?

Children on the Run report from UNHCR says they can:

“… the key issues to understand are, first, that the harm feared or experienced by these displaced children may rise to the level of persecution; second, that the harm may have been or may be directed at these children due to one of the five protected grounds – race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and political opinion; and third, that the State is responsible for the harm or is either unwilling or unable to provide protection from it.”

A young Somali man fleeing Al-Shabab is a refugee. Is there any reason that a young Salvadoran man fleeing MS-13 is any less a refugee?

In 1980, the U.S. refugee law was revised to come closer to compliance with international law. In its application, however, political considerations still weigh heavily. It’s time for a change in the way the law is applied, and a change of heart — to save both the Central American refugee children and the soul of this country.



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