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Should The U.S. Process Potential Refugees In Central America?

Should The U.S. Process Potential Refugees In Central America?


Jill Replogle, Fronteras reporter, KPBS.

Everard Meade, Ph.D., director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.


Tens of thousands of Central American kids await hearings in the U.S. to determine whether they have a legal right to protection. But some people are asking, would it be better to screen them at home, before they travel more than 1,000 treacherous miles to the Rio Grande Valley?

The White House is floating the idea of processing potential Central American refugees in the countries where they live. A pilot program could be set up in Honduras and then, if successful, expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, according to a draft proposal shared with the New York Times.

Some proponents of stricter immigration policy have blasted the proposal.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which advocates for more restrictive immigration policies. "All it would do is spark more people coming here from Central America.”

Meanwhile, human rights and refugee advocates are split on the idea. Some say it would likely exclude many Central American children facing persecution, while others say it could help stem the tide of kids traveling alone or with smugglers to the U.S. border.

“It would provide an alternative to children so that they don't have to make an incredibly treacherous journey,” said Wendy Young, president of the non-profit Kids in Need of Defense, based in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. has done what’s known as “in-country processing” of refugee groups in the past in Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. The Cuba program is ongoing (on a small scale), as are refugee processing programs for specific groups in Iraq and the Baltics. The U.S. also accepts a certain number of refugees each year referred by U.S. embassies, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees and non-governmental organizations.

But the 1992 to 1994 program in Haiti is the most recent large-scale refugee processing effort and, some say, the most relevant to the current situation in Central America.

The Haitian Experience

Just like today, with the children arriving from Central America, there was heated debate in the 1980s and '90s over whether Haitians attempting to reach the U.S. by boat or raft should be considered refugees or economic migrants.

Tens of thousands of Haitians fled the island on rickety boats and rafts, hoping to drift to U.S. shores. Some died trying: In 1981, the bodies of 30 Haitians washed ashore at Hillsboro Beach in Florida.

"Zero safety equipment, no life jackets, a big deal if they have a compass," then-U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. James P. Sutherland told the Los Angeles Times in March 1985.

Photo credit: Marcelo Salinas/Associated Press

A Haitian man carrying his daughter leaves the U.S. Coast Guard ship Valiant after being repatriated involuntarily at the Port-au-Prince pier, Jan. 11, 1995.

During this time, many Haitians faced daily terror by the Tontons Macoutes, paramilitary forces loyal to François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and subsequently, to his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Corruption, poverty and hunger were also rampant.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide — generally considered the country’s first democratically elected president — took office in 1991 only to be overthrown seven months later in a military coup. Widespread violence ensued, and the U.S. began accepting refugee applications in Haiti in 1992.

In the first two years of the program, more than 54,000 applications were filed, according to an analysis by human rights activist Bill Frelick, who is critical of the program. Only about 20 percent of the cases filed had been decided at the end of the first two years, and 92 percent of those were denied, according to Frelick.

In May 1994, the U.S. adjusted its criteria for refugee applicants in Haiti, giving priority to journalists, high-profile political and social activists, individuals close to Aristide, high-profile members of political and social organizations, and “others of compelling concern to the United States and in immediate danger.”

“The system was set up for elites,” Frelick, now head of the refugee rights program for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview. “It was used to prevent poor, illiterate, maybe very politically active people from seeking protection while providing a safe and orderly mechanism for those who had the ability to take advantage of the system.”

Frelick adds that holding the hearings in Haiti created a situation that made it dangerous and difficult for the most vulnerable refugee candidates to even apply. Applicants had to travel to the processing centers, some of which sat near Haitian police and military facilities. They often had to stand in lines potentially visible to their persecutors. And they had to fill out forms and provide contact information, which Frelick said would be impossible for many Haitians who were illiterate or in hiding.

“The presuppositions that you would be able to leave a mailing address and a telephone number all presume that you have money, literacy and a house that is safe to return to,” he said.

Meanwhile, Haitians were still fleeing to the U.S. in droves. To stanch the flow, President George Bush in May 1992 ordered the Coast Guard to repatriate “undocumented aliens” intercepted at sea.

He also ordered a large interdiction operation that included 17 Coast Guard cutters, nine planes and five Navy ships.

The number of Haitian boat people dropped after that, though still remained high. From January 1993 to November 1994, the Coast Guard intercepted 25,177 Haitians at sea.

Under pressure from human-rights groups, the U.S. began conducting interviews at sea in June 1994 to determine whether Haitians had a well-founded fear of persecution, the international refugee standard. However, it still served to restrict immigration, because the standard for seeking asylum was lower for Haitians who made it to U.S. soil.

“By keeping the interviewing off American soil, the Administration is in effect denying the Haitians access to a number of legal options they would be guaranteed as soon as they set foot in the United States,” according to a New York Times report at the time.

Would Central America Be A Repeat?

Frelick thinks screening potential refugees in Central America would have a similar effect.

“It worries me quite a bit,” he said. “It could be used actually to prevent the people that most need to flee the country quickly, who don't have the luxury of waiting in a line if someone is out to kill them."

He also thinks in-country processing would “become the rationale for summarily denying claimants” before they had a chance to present their case before an immigration judge.

Krikorian, from the Center for Immigration Studies, opposes refugee screening in Central America for very different reasons: He thinks it will encourage more people to apply for refugee status than are already coming to the U.S. border. Plus, he said, it won’t stop people from coming here illegally.

"If they get turned down, they can just come anyway,” he said. “Why wouldn't they? They can walk here.”

He also doesn’t believe a Central American refugee program would be coupled with stronger enforcement at the border.

"A strict interdiction policy, the equivalent of that at the border, is something this administration not just refuses to do, but has no intention of doing," Krikorian said.

On the other side of the debate are some refugee advocates who think processing refugees in Central America could provide a safety valve for some children and families facing persecution.

“[It] could be one tool in the toolbox to address the crisis that's unfolding at our border," said Young with Kids in Need of Defense. Her organization helps find lawyers for unaccompanied minors going through immigration proceedings.

Yet, Young agrees with Frelick that the Haitian program was flawed.

“I think we need to look at these past programs and learn from them,” she said. “If we do this in the Central American context, we need to make sure we design a program that truly addresses the need and responds to the violence."

Young said a successful refugee processing program in Central America should involve non-government organizations involved in refugee and child protection, making them the first point of contact for potential applicants.

She also said processing centers should be set up near areas that children are fleeing, and set “clear criteria to identify those children who are truly in need of protection.”

Young said that by her organization’s projections, roughly half of the Central American children who have arrived at the U.S. Southwest border in recent months are eligible for some sort of protection in the U.S., such as asylum or Special Immigrant Juveniles Status.

Young was unsure whether a refugee processing program in Central America would cut down on the numbers of children journeying on their own to the U.S. "That'll be interesting to see,” she said.

Still, she said an in-country refugee processing program shouldn’t serve to limit the number of Central American children with legitimate protection needs from seeking to enter the U.S.

“We need to go into this not thinking that this is a modest effort to resettle a few hundred kids in the United States,” Young said. “We need to go into this whole hog if we're going to do it, and really say that we're going to provide protection to anybody who presents themselves and who needs it."

The White House has said that in-country processing for Central Americans is one of many ideas being considered for dealing with the crisis. The numbers of children arriving at the South Texas border have dropped in recent weeks, though many believe it could just be a lull.

Obama administration officials told The New York Times they thought a refugee program could be implemented without going through Congress as long as it didn’t increase the total number of refugees coming into the U.S.

Currently, the number of refugees to be accepted from Latin America during fiscal 2014 is capped at 5,000. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

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