Asylum Under Attack
The current administration in Washington is waging an all-out war on asylum, which it falsely characterizes as a charade or loophole rather than an essential human right. While the war is focused on the influx of refugees at the southern border who flee violence and chaos in Central America, it threatens to demolish protections for refugees all over the world who come to the United States seeking safety. The Advocates for Human Rights deals every day with the desperate ones whose fates are at issue. Since policy affects real people, it is instructive to examine the government's anti-asylum initiatives in juxtaposition with just one of the many stories in our case files, which is used with our client's consent.
Maria was 11 years old and living with her family in Guatemala when a 22-year-old man began preying upon her, inducing her to engage in a sexual relationship with him. Her father forbade her from seeing the man, but he coerced Maria into returning to him by threatening to harm her family if she didn't. The man kept her locked in a room in his mother's house.
Having failed in the courts with previous anti-immigration tactics, the U.S. government just launched two new attacks on asylum by executive fiat, with other assaults being planned..
At the age of 14, Maria was forced to marry her abductor. She went to the police in Guatemala, but they told her this was a domestic matter that she should "work out" with her husband. When Maria's husband found out she had gone to the police, he beat her. As time went on, the beatings continued.
First, the administration announced that there would be a great expansion of the use of the expedited removal process, by which immigration courts and asylum officers are bypassed completely and lower-level immigration officials are allowed to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants with no due process so long as they have not been in the country for two years. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sharply criticized the expedited removal process, finding that border officials often are biased against asylum claims and fail to take steps necessary to ensure that asylum seekers are protected from arbitrary expedited removal. Nevertheless, the administration has embraced it.
Maria became pregnant and told her husband. He continued to beat her, so badly that she lost the baby. She escaped and hid with a family member, but her husband searched for her relentlessly. With no other escape from her situation, and no possibility of help from her country's government, Maria embarked on the arduous and dangerous journey through Mexico and across the U.S. border.
A second attack on asylum was the announcement of a new rule excluding people from asylum if they failed to first ask for asylum in a country through which they travelled. While this rule would affect all refugees, it is directed mainly at the Central American refugees who cross through Mexico and Guatemala before reaching the United States.
Non-profit advocacy groups promptly sued, challenging the administration's third- country rule. Among other grounds, they argued that the rule violates an express Congressional prohibition against relying on the asylum procedures of any country unless we have in place with that country a "safe country" agreement, ensuring their asylum procedures provide an acceptable level of safety for claimants. No such agreement exists with Mexico. (On July 26, the U.S. entered into a purported safe country agreement with Guatemala, even though Guatemala does not come close to meeting the standards for a safe country and was in fact the country from which Maria fled due to the lack of any governmental remedy for the domestic violence that threatened her life.)
On July 24, federal district courts on opposite coasts issued opinions concerning the new rule. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in the District of Columbia refused to enjoin the rule, essentially on a finding that the advocacy groups had failed to make a factual showing of standing to make their claims. The very same day, however, Judge Jon Tigar of the Northern District of California issued a lengthy opinion enjoining the rule, finding ample evidence that no reasonable asylum process was available in either Mexico or Guatemala. Appeals in both cases seem inevitable.
Maria found her way to The Advocates for Human Rights. Represented by Program Director Sarah Brenes, Maria won asylum. She is now living safely in the United States, where she is finishing high school and hopes to become a police officer.
Either of the latest attacks on asylum might have been used to deport Maria and send her back to her violent husband and a government unwilling to protect her. Can anyone believe that the United States would somehow have benefitted from that?
A humane asylum system is critical if we are to fulfill our legal and moral obligations to offer succor to the world's most desperate. As many of us have been asking for some time now, what kind of country are we?
By James O'Neal, Board Chair of the Advocates for Human Rights