Asylum seekers have been in the news quite a lot recently, as several migrant caravans make their way through central America towards Mexico and the US. We’ve heard a lot of disturbing things about these groups: that they’re trying to invade our country, that they’re dangerous and diseased, that they don’t care about our laws. We’ve heard a lot of people say— including Senator Cotton just last week— that asylum seekers should be welcome in America, but that they need to seek asylum “the right way.” If you feel that way then, well… you’d be right. We feel that way too. But here’s the thing: that’s exactly what these migrant caravans are doing. They’re on their way to apply for asylum in the US “the right way”— the only way, actually.
Here are a few facts everyone should know about asylum and these migrant caravans:
1) The only way to request asylum in a country is to physically get to that country and make your request. In person. On that country’s soil. That’s it. There is no application for asylum that someone can mail in from Honduras. Which makes sense, if you think about it. Asylum seekers are people who are in imminent danger. If someone had the time to fill out an application and wait for a few years for it to be processed before leaving their country, you might start to doubt whether they were really in that much danger to begin with. So that’s it. That’s all there is to it. If you are in danger in Honduras or El Salvador and you want the opportunity to find safety in the United States, the right way (and the only way) to do that is to make your way to the United States by whatever means possible and make your asylum request.
2) In order to qualify for asylum, you have to prove that your life is in danger because of your identity in some way. You have to prove that you are being persecuted because of your race, religion, political opinion, national origin or membership of a particular social group. Once you’re in the US, you will fill out an application with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service detailing exactly why you are afraid for your life. Then, typically, you’ll have to wait a year or two for an interview and a series of security checks before having your petition approved or denied. It’s very, very hard to prove that you are worthy of asylum. The bar is pretty high and only those with truly valid persecution claims will be selected. But of all the countries in the world, Honduras and El Salvador are pretty logical places for people to be fleeing, considering they have the two highest murder rates in the world.
3) Getting to the United States is dangerous in and of itself, so it makes sense that people would travel in groups. You have to cover hundreds of miles, mostly on foot, many of them through desert. You’re at constant risk of attack from smugglers and thieves. You could easily get lost and run out of food or water. That’s not the sort of journey anyone would want to undertake on their own, which is why people form caravans. They’re not trying to make an intimidating force— they’re just trying to stay safe as they make their way to our country “the right way.”
And here’s another important fact you might not have known. Current US law states that it doesn’t matter how you get to our country— you have the right to request asylum. Whether you cross at a formal port of entry historically has not had any bearing on your asylum petition. Which again, if you think about it, makes sense. An asylum claim is supposed to be about whether or not your life is really in danger— not about how well you understand US immigration and border laws. However, this past week, President Trump signed a proclamation attempting to change this law, stating that from now on, people who do not cross the border at official ports of entry can no longer request asylum.
Canopy NWA is deeply concerned by this move for a few main reasons. First, it starts to put qualifications on asylum petitions that have nothing to do with persecution. Asylum is supposed to be about what you fled you from— not how you got here. Crossing the border without inspection is a misdemeanor offense and people who do so are and should be prosecuted for it. But that should not be reason enough on its own to send them back to the danger they just fled, especially when you consider that many of those seeking asylum are unaccompanied children who don’t know any better.
Second, it puts asylum seekers in unnecessary danger by keeping them in the border region for months. Currently, there isn’t enough manpower at official border crossings to process the volume of people needing to seek asylum, and despite this new proclamation, it doesn’t appear the DOJ or DHS have plans to increase the number of officials at these ports of entry anytime soon. That means that those who do know to cross at an official border crossing and try to do so could face months and months of camping at the border as they await their turn in line. That opens people up to all kinds of unnecessary vulnerabilities.