Mexican And Central American Asylum Rates Remain Low
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on midday edition. It was one of the biggest headlines of the summer. Thousands of young people from Central America crossing the U S border. Many said they feared for their lives. They were in danger back home and were seeking asylum in America. Now, the numbers at the border have dropped off dramatically, but the status of the immigrants who made the crossing is largely up in the air. A conference is underway in San Diego examining the U S policies on refugees and asylum seekers. I'd like to welcome two people taking part in the recognizing refugee conference. Ev Meade is director of the Transporter Institute at the University of San Diego. Ev, welcome back to the show. EV MEADE: Thanks Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alex Sanchez is here. He was granted political asylum from El Salvador, he is co-founder of Homies Unidos. And Alex, welcome. ALEX SANCHEZ: Thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bring us up to date, Ev, on what many people call the crises of unaccompanied children crossing the U S border. The last total I saw was about 69,000 this year, but the numbers have really dwindled in recent months; is that right? EV MEADE: That's right. The number of unaccompanied kids who are coming has dropped off dramatically. Part of the reason we want to get people together in San Diego this week was to put this into a broader context. Talk about the fact 68,000 adults from Central America also came and they are not eligible for the same protection as the kids and they got a lot less attention, so I wanted to do that. The other thing we wanted to do, the other piece of the context was take all of this attention that has gone to the kidnapping and presumed murder of the 43 EV MEADEs in (CHECK AUDIO) in Guerrero Mexico and say hey there are people fleeing that violence and these are people coming to the United States and this is our piece of that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just a question or two more about the unaccompanied minors because we heard so much about that this summer. What are the reasons the numbers are down? EV MEADE: There are a number of different things. Part of it is this was a cyclical thing. Part of the reason we called it a crisis it was unprecedented meaning something not necessarily sustainable. Part of it is also it may be the process has just become less visible - that there are still kids coming, but they are not making it all the way to the U S border. That is an important thing. We've got to find out what's happening. Get better information from Mexico. Part of it also though has to do with a seasonal low. It's possible that again in the spring we could see large numbers of kids coming. There are a lot of unknowns there. What we do know, the conditions of violence the underlying conditions of violence in Central America haven't changed dramatically. And the significant pressure for people to seek safe haven in the United States. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the things that has changed is that there has been a new policy just about to be implemented, I'd believe in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, allowing people, minors, who feel as if they are threatened, that they would like to seek refugee status in the U S to actually apply for it in their home country; is that right? EV MEADE: Yes. But it's a very limited program. It applies to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador but it's limited to minors who have parents who are lawful residents of the United States. If we were to take a look at the 68,000 kids who came last summer and last spring, in large part, most of them wouldn't apply for this, wouldn't have been able to if this had been an option before they made this dangerous journey through Mexico. This applies to a very select set of kids, and there is also a lot of questions about how is this actually going to be implemented and how is it going to work under refugee law in the United States because U S -- following international law tradition, this isn't really the intent of the refugee act. It's not how we thought about refugees historically, it's not a preferential program in this way. So there are a lot of questions about what are we trying to do here and why are we targeting this very limited set of kids and not focusing on the larger phenomenon. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Ev Meade, let me ask you some questions about refugee law, refugee policy, in the United States; is refugee status the same as asylum? EV MEADE: It's different. Asylum is based on the definition of a refugee. But asylum is an individualized process. It's supposed to have no policy bias. It's supposed to be where an individual comes forward and says I meet the international definition of a refugee. I've been persecuted in my country of origin because I'm a member of -- I have these five protected categories we have under the law and I'm going to prove it with evidence and you're going to judge me as an individual. Refugee status comes from the same sort of humanitarian goal, has a similar set of legal origins but it's always been a group designation, more discretionary. Sort of - the United States goes to an organization like the U N high commission for refugees that runs a refugee camp and agrees, we'll take five thousand people from this particular crisis. So it's always been something that has explicitly been about policy not so much about individuals. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it sounds as if all of the people who came across the border this year, perhaps have unknown status from years before who say that they are fleeing from persecution, will have to individually ask for asylum and if they do individually ask for asylum, what is it that they will have to prove? EV MEADE: So they are going to have to prove that they've been persecuted because, most of these cases are going to fall under a social group or political opinion. And it's going to be very hard to prove because you have to prove you've been personally targeted. For kids, if you think about the roles kids have in our society we don't see their names in the newspaper. They are not typically the ones that receive a death threat from somebody or witness something they shouldn't witness, and their name gets out. So often it's kind of indirect. It's through who their parents are, the neighborhood they live in. It's because something that happened to a sibling or a cousin or brother. These are very difficult cases to prove for asylum. So for many of these kids, it will be other forms of relief that really offer them a better option such as special immigrant juvenile status which is for kid whose have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. For other kids it will be humanitarian parole, something much more discretionary, but a lot of these kids are very much in situation where they may be in the United States for a few years, but it's not at all clear what kind of legal relief they will be eligible for. It's very much yet to be determined. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alex Sanchez, you not only work with people who are trying to kind of find out what their status could be under some sort of asylum seeking, but you've been through this yourself. It's good for us to remember this week, this year, last year not the first wave of kids coming to the United States from Central America; you were part of a wave in the 1970's right? ALEX SANCHEZ: Yeah, 1979 years before the civil war started in El Salvador, our parents fled the initiation of the conflict and left many of us children behind. Years after, they sent for us and I came in the wave in 1979 with my little brother who was five at the time I was seven. And we came to meet our parents for the first time basically because we had not known them anymore. We had been away from them for five years. We find this is typically what's happening with the new wave of immigrant children coming from Central America. They are coming into the homes they are being unified after being released from these detention facilities. They have two parents they don't know longer know and they are coming into the same type of environment I came into back in '79. So that is the effort we're working on locally in Los Angeles the issues of this culture clash, many of these kids will be experiencing in the local communities they go to. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't think that has been as much a part of the conversation as it needs to be. This idea that many of the unaccompanied minors coming to the United States. We've heard they are going to be reunited with family members but we haven't heard specifically that many of these children were left in their home countries because their parents were targets of persecution. And they are actually coming to reunite with their parents. ALEX SANCHEZ: Exactly for many of them it's been ten years. We're working in two schools right now, planning on working in two more and plan on addressing the issues of these kids being in English as a second language classroom in which they're already having conflicts with other immigrant children there from Mexico or even among themselves. So we find that these kids are having confrontation. They are experiences when they talk to us has been as I don't get along with my step father now. Or my siblings are American and they think I'm dumb because I don't speak the language and these sort of issues have resulted in them misbehaving in school. Getting into trouble or assimilating into dominantly in their school ground. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alex, it was a long and winding room, road for you to be granted asylum in the United States. Let me ask, how did getting asylum change your life? ALEX SANCHEZ: Well, first of all it was a miracle for me to be able to be here today after my -- the life I had led as a young immigrant child coming to the U S. To be able to be granted asylum was to be able to finally live in peace and make sure that I was going to be able to raise my son, who I had been a single father to without documents - working in the black market and trying to figure out how to make a penny out of anything because I couldn't find a job that was going to pay me enough to be able to sustain my son. It was enable able for me to be able to work, giving back to the community, being able to help other youth that had been involved in youth violence to get their life together. And now we run an organization that is helping many of these youngsters. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The current crisis in south of the border, how similar is it to the conditions that Alex faced when he came to reunite with his parents in the 70's? EV MEADE: Well, there are some real parallels. There are things that are the same. There are some things that are different. In the unique case of Mexico and it's the hardest thing, I think, to explain to a general audience, Mexico almost like it's schizophrenia. On the one hand Mexico is a far wealthier, far more developed country than anywhere in Central America by a wide margin. It has institutions that work really well. It has institutions of government that work really well. It has universities. It has some real infrastructure, has a very highly educated population, but at the same time it's in the grip of this particular wave of violence. That we put under the rubric of the drug war and that violence doesn't produce -- it produces some very horrifying statistics 26,000 people disappeared. Over 100,000 killed since 2006. But it doesn't have for example, the homicide rate in El Salvador or Honduras or Guatemala and what you have to do to take a more qualitative look. Look at an incident like these 43 students being kidnapped by municipal police, handed over to drug traffickers and killed and ask yourself why that happens and what it tells us. And what it tells us is we have some violence, that's really about strategic terror, not so much about a black market but it has an impact that goes far behind the number of homicides or crimes that are committed. Mexico has these two things going on at once. And it's very confusing and very difficult for people who get caught in the middle of it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And even what you've said, Ev, you've been doing research about how challenging it is to actually be able to be granted political asylum if you're from Central America or Mexico. EV MEADE: Exactly. If you look over the last ten years and you make a chart of asylum seekers from all over the world that came do the United States, where there's a significant number of applications - it's Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at the very bottom of the chart. It's that way all the way across the last ten years. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why? EV MEADE: It's difficult. Part of it is a curse of familiarity. The immigration judges who hear the cases also do a lot of removal cases from Mexico. It's a sense in the United States we know these places, people go to vacation in Mexico, even some of the judges who do these cases have just come back from their spring break. It's also the way we define the violence, because we use this rubric of the drug war cops and robbers crime and punishment kind of a rubric and not a rubric of civil war, we don't, we somehow don't perceive that violence as legitimate. We think people that it targets must somehow be involved. That they must somehow be culpable for their own victimization and that's one of the things people are learning out of this case from Guerrero. These students clearly had no culpability, it's wasn't because they were involved in something. They were going for a civil protest against an education reform. And the more we peal back the onion, the more we find that a greater and greater percentage of this, these disappearances and homicides in Mexico are a lot like that. People who they are being attacked in order to terrorize a particular population not because of anything in particular that they did. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Once again, I want to make the point that this discussion is under way for the next couple of days at the Institute for Peace and Justice U S D, scholars and diplomats and both of you will be taking part in that. I'm glad you were able to take out just a few minutes of your time today to come here and speak to us about that. I've been speaking with Ev Meade - director of the trans-border institute at U C D. Alex Sanchez co-founders of Homies Unidos. Thank you very much. EV MEADE: Thank you. ALEX SANCHEZ: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, update your lexicon. We'll discuss the best new words of 2014. It's 12:21. You're listening to K P B S midday edition.
Thousands of young people from Central America crossing the U.S-Mexico border was one of the biggest headlines of the summer.
The government reported that 68,000 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody at the border in fiscal 2014.
University of San Diego's Recognizing Refugees Conference, which is being held this week, brought experts together to discuss several issues surrounding immigration, including the low grant rate for asylum seekers and sustainable solutions to reduce the violence.
Alex Sanchez, co-founder of the nonprofit Homies Unidos, was granted asylum from El Salvador in 1979 when he was 7.
"It was a miracle for me to be able to be here," Sanchez told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. "To be granted asylum was to be able to live in peace."
Ev Meade, director of USD’s Trans-Border Institute, said the current wave of immigrants has similarities to Sanchez’s experience. They are fleeing from violence, just as Sanchez and his parents did.
But Meade said the difference is that El Salvador was in a civil war in the 1970s while Mexico is in a drug war today.
"Mexico is almost like it's schizophrenic," Meade said. "It has institutions that work really well. But at the same time, it's in the grip of this particular wave of violence that we put in the rubric of the drug war. We somehow don’t perceive that violence as legitimate. We think that people that it targets must somehow be involved — that they must somehow be culpable for their own victimization.”
Meanwhile, starting this month, some children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador could begin applying for refugee status under a new government program.