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

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.
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.
Should The U.S. Process Potential Refugees In Central America?
Should The U.S. Process Potential Refugees In Central America?
Should The U.S. Process Potential Refugees In Central America? GUESTS:Jill Replogle, Fronteras reporter, KPBS. Everard Meade, Ph.D., director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.

TOM FUDGE: Our top story on Midday Edition, the Obama administration is considering a plan to keep Central Americans in their home countries while they apply for US refugee status. This would be in response to the thousands of people, many children, making a dangerous trek to the US order to apply for asylum what they are in the states. Supporters say in country processing will spare children the dangerous journey through my skull. But a similar plan in the 1990s were Haitian refugees had many problems. Today, in country processing is getting mixed reviews from both immigrant activists and anti-immigrant groups. Joining me to explain how such a program might work and what it might achieve are my guests. Jill Replogle and Ev Meade. Till, you did a feature story on the idea of in country processing. Tell us quickly how the process would work. JILL REPLOGLE: Let me first just say this is in the idea stage as far as I know. It's something that refugee advocates have been pushing for. The administration shared a draft proposal with the New York Times a few weeks ago. According to that, children would be interviewed by immigration officials in Central America, starting in Honduras as a pilot program. Those officials will determine whether the kids would be eligible for resettlement in the US. We would likely set criteria for that eligibility. A resettlement center may be set up in Honduras or somewhere in Central America, and international organizations that work with refugees, like the International Organization for Migration would work with you have to run this resettlement centers. TOM FUDGE: Okay, and I think this process is unusual, but are there other countries for whom the US now uses in country processing? JILL REPLOGLE: We do it on a small scale in Cuba, we have been prolonged time. We do it for specific groups in Iraq, the politics, and other places. We also accept a certain number of refugees each year that are referred to US embassies and the UN high commission on refugees, and other nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have done this on a larger scale in Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Haiti. TOM FUDGE: We'll talk about Haiti in a couple of minutes, but first, remind us what foreigners need to prove to the granted refugee status in the United States. EVERARD MEADE: That's actually an interesting question, because we tend to put refugee status and asylum together. You have to start first with the definition of refugee. The definition of refugees very generic. It comes out of international law in the refugee convention 1951 and an update to that in 1967 with optional protocol. It says a refugee is a person who is outside of his or her country of nationality or habitual residence, and has a well-founded fear of persecution based on his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. We have copied that verbatim into our law into the refugee act, which created the asylum system in the US. TOM FUDGE: A well-founded fear of retribution? EVERARD MEADE: Persecution. It has to be based on one of these five protected categories: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. TOM FUDGE: Jill, is that what the Central American refugees are claiming? JILL REPLOGLE: Well, we don't know. I don't think many of those cases have gone through the immigration system, which is how it would work if they get US soil. They get heard by an immigration judge, and the immigration judge decides. When this happens overseas there are additional criteria put on top of the basic five criteria. TOM FUDGE: What are they? JILL REPLOGLE: That depends where. In Iraq, people who worked with the US military or US affiliated organizations got the chance to apply for refugee status. EVERARD MEADE: What they do when they do this outside of the country, the asylum system is very much like a legal system. It has regular procedures, and a bunch of case law that decide that. When we do more ad hoc things abroad, usually the president makes a decision and sets a ceiling on the number of refugees that come from a particular place. In Cuba, we have a limit of 5000. Usually the president also issues specific instructions that target particular groups. In Cuba, we are after religious centers, political and human rights activists that have been targeted by the regime there. In Iraq, is mostly personnel that worked with the government there, the embassy, or had some affiliation with US forces and persecution is based on that association. That is the difference with refugees, it's much more discretionary. It's something that you can write into a presidential determination, or Congress can pass a law that defines it as such. TOM FUDGE: You have been following the influx of unaccompanied children coming to the US from Central America. What do you think of the idea of in country processing? EVERARD MEADE: I think it can be a really good tool. All of us have heard the stories about these Central American kids writing the trains through Mexico, they been abused, raped, and kidnapped and held for ransom, and worse along the journey. A lot of us think why not cut the journey out? The problem is, what is the intent behind it? Is the intent to protect children? If it is, this could be a very good tool. I know you will talk with Jill about this Haitian case, but if you talk about some of the president, we have not them is to protect refugees. We have done it to enforce immigration law abroad. It's a way to have a very restrictive immigration policy was outside of the United States. It's all about the intent behind it, how is it ruled out, what are the standards, and how we are adjudicating people. It's all about the details. TOM FUDGE: Jill, this kind of processing was used when thousands of Haitians were attempting to seek asylum during the Duvalier regime in the 1990s. What was going on at that time and Haiti? JILL REPLOGLE: In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of turmoil in Haiti. They finally got rid of the Duvalier dynasty towards the end of the 1980s, and then there were a series of short-lived military dictatorships. Aristide came to power, democratically elected in 1991. And then he was overthrown in a military coup shortly after. Violence was widespread in that time period, and a lot of people were fleeing the Tontons Macoutes, paramilitary forces that were allied with government. As there is now, there's a lot of debate in our society about whether people fleeing Haiti, and remember they were often called the Haitian boat people, because they were leaving the island on rickety boats and rafts. There's a lot of debate about whether they were economic migrants or refugees. We started processing refugees and Haiti in 1992. TOM FUDGE: And that in country processing program was heavily criticized, I think. JILL REPLOGLE: It was, for many of the reasons that Ev already mentioned. One thing, it had much stricter criteria and the five basic categories that defined international refugee law. We specifically, at some point in the program, started giving preference to people who were high-level collaborators with the Aristide government, journalists and other categories. Bill Frelick, Director of the Refugee Program for Human Rights Watch was very critical of this program, and here's what he had to say about it: [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] BILL FRELICK: Thereality was that we put lives in danger as a result of that. I'm not saying this would necessarily work the same way, but I think it raises many of the same concerns that we had then. [END AUDIO FILE] JILL REPLOGLE: Let me follow up on that. For one thing, we paired this program of processing refugees in country with a very strong enforcement effort on the high seas. The US Coast Guard was intercepting thousands of refugees and setting the back and telling them to get back in line and apply for refugee status. They had to stand in line at a processing center that could be across the street from the military barracks, and for some people that was a very vulnerable situation. He also says this was set up for it leads, because a lot of Haitians are illiterate, they had to fill out multiple forms, maybe they could not do that, they had to actually get to the place where the processing centers were set up. They had to give an address, they may have already fled the residences, and all of this made this very difficult for poorer Haitians to apply, including some of the most vulnerable people. TOM FUDGE: They said the problem with processing these people in their home country, they had to stand in line in front of the very people that the claimant were persecuting them. JILL REPLOGLE: Sometimes, some of the processing centers were apparently set up nearby to police and military barracks. In many cases, anyone would be able to see someone walk in and out. If they got word that they were trying to get out of the country, that just sends up a red flag. TOM FUDGE: Ev, I don't know how much you know about the situation Haiti, do you have any comment on this? EVERARD MEADE: Definitely. I think Jill covered a lot of it, but the proof of the fact it was geared more towards enforcement, if you just look at the grant rate for refugee status, for the fiscal year 1993, for Haitians that applied in Port of France, it was 7.7%. For people from all different nationalities who applied at diplomatic posts around the world, it was 84%. In other words, it was much lower and harder for Haitians to do this. If you look at the requirements of these programs, most people had to get travel documents from the government they were fleeing. That is true right now for the Cairo program we have. You actually have to get a Cuban passport and a health certificate. We saw this also with W-2s, with evangelical Christians fleeing the Soviet Union. The criteria were self-selected for people who were middle-class or upper-middle-class. It's not that they were not persecuted, but they were not the population in any case that were most in need. They had most means and ability to apply, or probably the people who were raised in need. People were really in danger are not necessarily going to show up at the government office and ask for travel documents. TOM FUDGE: Jill, I know that you have talked to a number of people who have commented on in country processing, what are they saying? What are you hearing from anti-illegal immigration groups? JILL REPLOGLE: Some people who really want to see fewer immigrants in the US and what this US accepting fewer refugees, especially those with critical about how we have handled large numbers of children and family living coming from the last few months and years from Central America, they think that setting up in country processing of people who does allow for a greater number of people to apply and come in the first place. I spoke with Mark Krikorian from the Center for immigration studies, that's the advocate for a restrictionist immigration policy, and he thinks it will just encourage more people to come to the border. [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] MARK KRIKORIAN: Well Honduras is a terrible place, there is no question about it. It is poor and violent. But most places that immigrants come from our poor and violent, that is why you leave places. The idea we should be giving some kind of special opportunities to people from Honduras strikes me as improbable. [ END AUDIO FILE ] JILL REPLOGLE: He basically says it's not fair, why would they be given this possibility and not Sierra Leone? TOM FUDGE: What do pro-immigration groups think of this proposal? JILL REPLOGLE: A lot of people are supported of it, because it would keep kids from making this dangerous journey across Mexico to the US. Many young girls are raped and subject to sexual violence. People have been killed. It would take business out of the hands of smugglers. In general, it would provide a more orderly way of dealing with this problem. TOM FUDGE: Ev, any follow-up to that? EVERARD MEADE: If I could respond to the restrictionist, we have seen this over and over again. He put out his idea that everywhere in the world that migrants come from are coming from terrible paces. But the fact is, we're not seeing people, particularly children and families coming from all over the world. They're coming from three specific places, and it seems to me that we could tailor our policies to those specific places. We don't have a flood of kids from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Nicaragua, or other countries right now. We did have a tailored approach. It's just one tool among many. If we don't deal with the underlying conditions people are fleeing, and we don't work on our regional relationships and don't kind of get the world invested in improving conditions in Central America, this would be a short-term fix. It could be a good short-term step, but we need to follow up with comprehensive policy. TOM FUDGE: What if I am a potential refugee and there's an opportunity to apply for asylum status in my own country. I apply, I'm rejected, what do I do then? How many people will make the trek anyway? EVERARD MEADE: You have to be precise about that. On one hand there are people who applied for asylum, but there is also a provision in the current proposal that would allow US to grant humanitarian parole, which is a much lower standard. It allows someone to be in the United States without any other form of migration status. It is something that is highly discretionary. The Attorney General by way of the present can grant this, but they can also revoke it at any time. I think part of the presumption behind this program is yes, they would take asylum applications. It is a very high standard with a lot of proof and evidence, particularly targeting those under persecution. They also could do what they did with people who fled Saigon in 1975. They went through a vetting process, and many of those folks were not granted asylum, they were granted humanitarian parole. We would have to follow that up with subsequent legislation about how many of these folks, and in what way they will be incorporated to become permanent residents here. And when conditions get better, you may want to go back. TOM FUDGE: One thing I guess we should mention is the fact that a lot of these Central American countries are very violent, and people really do have a fear of being persecuted, if not by the government, then by the drug cartels in place like Honduras and Guatemala. JILL REPLOGLE: There have been several reports projections about how many of these children and families coming to the border but actually apply for some sort of protection in the United States. Some of those protections are as high as 50%. There is a UN study that was done a few months back that interviewed over 400 children from those countries, and over 50% said violence was one of the reasons they were coming. TOM FUDGE: Thank you both very much.

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.

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.