Reclaiming Asylum, Rethinking the Border

When Juana Pedro recently answered the phone at her Cincinnati home, she heard the voices of her thirteen-year-old nephew, Baltazar, and eleven-year-old niece, Eulalia—Guatemalan children apprehended near El Paso, Texas, by Border Patrol agents.

“The real crisis is that the United States is not allowing many people to apply for asylum.”

“I asked them, ‘What about your mother?’ ” recalls Pedro. Eulalia’s answer—“I don’t know what happened to her”—was hardly comforting.

It would take more than a week before Pedro heard from his sister, Catarina, the children’s mother. She ended up back in Guatemala, the very country that she and her children had fled after being threatened by gang violence.

In mid-March, Catarina and her children tried to seek asylum as a family. But as soon as they crossed into Texas, they were picked up by Border Patrol agents and returned to Mexico. That’s because President Joe Biden has not repealed Donald Trump’s year-old border closures. The children then crossed alone a second time.

It’s a step in the right direction that the Biden Administration is letting unaccompanied children in. But had Border Patrol permitted the children and their mother to stay together, they could have been placed quickly with Pedro while they awaited their asylum proceedings.

Such an approach—fast placement with sponsors in the community—would also ease the backup at Customs and Border Protection’s jail-like facilities and the Department of Health and Human Services’ shelter network, where unaccompanied youths are transferred until placed with sponsors.

What’s needed is a much different mindset about border issues, one that doesn’t treat asylum seekers as criminals, but keeps them out of detention and in communities.

“If you think of asylum seekers as individuals who have fled persecution, been persecuted, and are traumatized, you would have a different model than a law enforcement model,” says Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies

As of early April, Baltazar and Eulalia were still among the roughly 18,000 unaccompanied youths crammed into Customs and Border Protection and Health and Human Services facilities—at the center of the so-called “crisis” that has distorted the immigration debate.

“The real crisis,” says Claudia Cubas, litigation director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, “is that the United States is not allowing many people to apply for asylum.”

U.S. asylum law provides that migrants who set foot on U.S. soil should be allowed to make their case for safe haven. But Trump thumbed his nose at this fundamental right by using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for his March 2020 closure of the borders.

Actually, the borders remain open for “essential” crossings, but asylum seekers are deemed “non-essential.” About sixty-six million vehicle, bus and train passengers, and pedestrians were welcomed into the United States through the Southern border from April through December of last year, according to Human Rights First.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued various orders that sharply restricted grounds for granting asylum. These need to be rescinded.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol made more than 600,000 “expulsions” of migrants during the past year. This term is government lingo to put this population outside of asylum law, and expel them without due process. After just some cursory questions, they are returned to Mexico or put on the next deportation flight to their homeland. And this has tragically left many thousands of asylum seekers stranded on the Mexican side of the border, with nowhere to go.

“We are human beings who are fleeing violence, torture—and desperate,” says Ziad, an asylum seeker from East Africa at a recent livestreamed Eyes on ICE forum, part of a campaign sponsored by a coalition led by Mijente, an immigrant rights group.

Ziad, as he identified himself, has been on the Mexico side of the Southern border for about thirteen months. Out of desperation in September, he crossed to the U.S. side with a group of Africans, only to be returned to Mexico, where he’s volunteering with the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

“We work for all the migrants—human beings who are sleeping in the middle of nowhere, under small tents,” he says.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is trying to quicken the placement of unaccompanied minors at the border by, for example, having the unaccompanied children contact family members in the United States within a day of their detention.

That should help because in more than eighty percent of placements, the child has a family member in the United States, and in over forty percent of these cases that family member is a parent or legal guardian.

“They are not treated like parents who have a right to these children,” says immigration lawyer Amy Maldonado, who last month helped parents in Silver Spring, Maryland, get reunited with their Guatemalan four-year-old daughter.

The child, says Maldonado, crossed the border with her great aunt and her cousin. Under the absurdity of Biden’s border policy, the aunt and her cousin were made to return to Mexico. The child remained with Border Patrol, which was given information to contact the parents but failed to do so.

Maldonado got wind of the child’s whereabouts and contacted the parents as well as the government, and said the mother wanted to come and get the child. Before that could happen, the child was placed in foster care in Michigan.

The child’s seven-day journey in the placement bureaucracy ended in a reunion with her parents, after continued prodding by immigration advocates.

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James Goodman