The Humanitarian Challenge of Asylum Seekers From Central America

March 6, 2019 – Reports in today’s Washington Post and on NPR use preliminary, unreleased numbers from the Trump Administration to claim that there is an unprecedented increase in unauthorized or illegal entry into the U.S. at the southern border.  But these and other stories about what is happening at the border miss important facts and context that are necessary to understand the problem we are facing and, therefore, the steps that are needed to address those problems.

Douglas Rivlin, Communication Director of America’s Voice said:

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Both the Washington Post and NPR stories today missed key elements of context that undermine the Trump Administration’s claims that an invasion of Central Americans is causing an unprecedented security crisis at our southern border.  Despite all of Trump’s hype on caravans and marauding criminal hordes, the reality is that overall numbers of people coming to the U.S.-Mexico border without visas remains at historically low levels. The uptick in Central American family units and unaccompanied children reflects a bigger problem of desperation and violence in Central America, changes to how the Trump Administration is handling families and asylum-seekers, and — most of all — the Administration’s desire to spin border statistics on Central American refugees to maintain the level of fear, which they feel is critical to Trump’s 2020 reelection prospects.

We have a refugee crisis with humanitarian consequences, not an illegal entry crisis

Despite all of the attention the Trump Administration puts on the border, the reality is that in FY2017, we set a record for the lowest level of illegal entry since statistics were first compiled in the 1970s.  Even after an uptick, FY2018 had the fifth lowest apprehensions since 1973.

Additionally, there is no surge of unauthorized border crossings – instead, families and individuals are presenting themselves at the border and seeking asylum. Because new Trump policies are redirecting asylum-seekers away from controlled ports of entry, a higher percentage are being apprehended between ports of entry, not at them.

Yet some of the coverage today seemed to mischaracterize the nature of what’s happening – instead of “unauthorized” migration and “illegal crossings,” as the Post discussed, we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis involving asylum seekers who are are in essence refugees from the violence and chaos in our hemisphere.

Important context: Most Asylum Seekers ARE Asylum Seekers

More than 80 percent of individuals claiming “credible fear” of persecution, death or repercussions have passed initial and related screenings in both FY2017 and FY2018. This means that in 8 out of 10 cases, trained asylum officers have determined that a prima facie case for asylum can move forward for further adjudication.

Between 2008 and 2018, almost 90 percent of asylum seekers who were found to have a credible fear (87.5%) appeared at their hearings and follow-up adjudications. Over the past five years, less than 10 percent of individuals who filed an asylum application failed to appear.  This has improved in recent years as coordinated efforts to provide legal counsel to those seeking asylum and the use of pretrial services have expanded. Congress specifically increased funding for alternatives to detention by $35 million, which ICE itself says enhances its “operational effectiveness” and are proven to improve court attendance at substantially lower cost than immigration detention.

So, be forewarned and be skeptical when unnamed Homeland Security personnel articulate Trump’s spin to the Washington Post that people are being released without consequence or that we have an increasing problem of people who “shed their monitoring bracelets and slip into the shadows to remain in the United States.

The wall is not the answer

Understanding the true nature of the problem makes it clear that Trump’s approach makes things worse, not better. As the pieces highlight, many of the asylum-seekers are already presenting themselves in regions that have border fencing – such as along sections of the Rio Grande. Furthermore, a wall simply doesn’t address the asylum seekers, families, and unaccompanied minors the border patrol is encountering. Veteran border agent Manny Padilla of Joint Task Force West told NPR’s John Burnett, “The wall is not going to do anything with this population.”

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