Alicia R., a 26-year-old shop owner in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, saw her mother murdered by local gang members. “They were coming to kill somebody [else] and she was there, too.”
San Pedro, by some measures, is the “the world's most dangerous city.” Alicia escaped, but then neighbors warned her that the gang was after her as a witness to their crime. So she fled to the United States.
After a long bus journey through Mexico with her two children, ages 3 and 10, Alicia crossed the U.S. border in Texas, where the family was apprehended by the Border Patrol. “I told them, I cried, that I couldn’t go back to my country,” she said. But the Border Patrol deported her within two days. When I met with her in September, Alicia (whose name I have changed to protect her identity) had been back in Honduras for a week, changing houses every few days to avoid the gang and working out how to flee again.
Alicia was just one of the people whose stories are documented in a new Human Rights Watch report. We found that U.S. immigration authorities are sending asylum seekers from Central America back to the threat of murder, rape and other violence after cursory screening at the border.
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This is not how the U.S. immigration system is supposed to work. When an unauthorized migrant arrives at the border, U.S. officials, usually a Border Patrol agent, make a quick assessment. Agents must inform migrants of the availability of asylum protections and ask them if they fear returning to their home country. If they don't express such a fear, they may be ordered deported.
But if a migrant reports being afraid to return home, the agent must refer the individual to an asylum officer for a more in-depth assessment to evaluate whether their fear is “credible,” that is, whether it might qualify the person for asylum or other protections. If an asylum officer finds that their fear is “credible,” the migrant may proceed to apply for asylum in immigration court. If not, they are entitled to have an immigration judge review the asylum officer’s finding.
But if Border Patrol agents or other immigration officers do not flag a migrant as being afraid to return to their country in the first place, asylum seekers are summarily deported. That’s what happened to many of the people I spoke with in Honduras.
The numbers back up their accounts. Data obtained by Human Rights Watch from U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the Freedom of Information Act for 2011 and 2012 — the most recent years for which numbers were available — indicate that comparatively few Central American migrants are recorded by the Border Patrol as having expressed fear of returning to their country. Only 1.9 percent were flagged as possible asylum seekers, similar to the rate for Mexicans and other Central Americans, but far lower than the 21-percent average over the same period for all other countries. In other words, Central Americans fleeing to the United States are not being given a real chance to be considered for asylum.
To be sure, not everyone arriving at the border is a refugee, nor does every migrant who undergoes the second level of screening succeed in gaining asylum. But U.S. law recognizes the right of asylum seekers who qualify for protection not to be returned to a country where they may face serious risks to their lives or safety. This includes those fleeing gangs and other abuses for which the Honduran government cannot or will not protect them. Border Patrol says it trains its officers to properly refer migrants to asylum officers. But the Honduran migrants I spoke with said that Border Patrol officers seemed singularly focused on deporting them, or didn’t seem to believe that their fear of returning to threats of gang violence merited referral.
It’s time for the Obama administration and Congress to stop fast-tracking Central American migrants for deportation and allow them adequate opportunity to make a claim for asylum. The administration should also reverse its decision to expand the detention of migrant families and increase migrants’ access to legal counsel. Otherwise, shoddy screening will continue to put the lives of people like Alicia at grave risk.
Clara Long is a U.S. immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the new report “You Don’t Have Rights Here: U.S. Border Screening and Returns of Central Americans to Risk of Serious Harm.”