Can persecution transcend the immigration debate?

A refugee fleeing persecution may have a strong case for asylum. Yet the wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border is raising new questions.

A recent wave of undocumented Central American immigrants has renewed immigration policy debate. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, almost 40,000 children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed the U.S. border without documentation since 2009. Even since last year, the number of children crossing the border has doubled.

However, the issue may call for a humanitarian response that transcends politics. Indeed, President Obama has characterized the influx as a humanitarian crisis. The reason: the immigrants are mostly unaccompanied minors. A majority of the young refugees are fleeing gang violence, compulsory gang membership or other harsh conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Many may hope to qualify for asylum in the United States.

Current refugee treatment

For those children that do make it across the border, many may end up in a temporary shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They are not allowed to leave the grounds of the shelter until a sponsor, usually a family member, picks them up. The average stay is under 35 days. In 2014, the federal budget has apportioned $868 million for these shelters.

Some advocates are urging the State Department to treat the undocumented children as refugees and set up an asylum processing system. The suggestion has precedent: The State Department has formally responded to other refugee situations, such as the Congressional response on the subject of Haitian refugees that it published on its website.

Border security measures

However, President Obama’s recent appeal to Congress for a $3.7 billion budget supplement was not for asylum process but for strengthening border security, expediting deportations and helping the Central American countries address their gang violence and related security issues.

On July 21, Tex Gov. Rick Perry deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to cover his state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. The estimated monthly cost of that additional border security is reportedly around $12 million. Perry has stated that he expects the federal government to cover the bill.

Is asylum an option for undocumented immigrants?

Of course, there are legal ways to seek asylum, and data from the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees reflects a spike in asylum claims filed since 2008 from residents of those three countries. The requests were made to neighboring countries including Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico.

In the United States, eligibility for asylum requires an applicant to produce evidence demonstrating a fear of persecution in his or her home country on one or more enumerated grounds. Those grounds include race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or membership in a particular social group. However, without the help of an attorney who focuses on immigration law, the odds of a favorable outcome may be uncertain, due in part to the difficulty of producing evidence in support of a credible fear. An immigration attorney may have strategies for preparing a strong case, such as requesting reports from governmental or human rights organizations.

Keywords: immigration, asylum, refugees, undocumented immigrants, border crossings, border patrol, immigration attorney