Many news outlets report today that several members of the Guatemalan caravan have been allowed to enter the U.S. for the purpose of being processed for asylum by U.S. immigration authorities. Here is an excellent article explaining the asylum process from the New York Times.
The Trump administration continues to take a hard line, arguing that at least many of these people are essentially economic migrants exploiting what the administration terms the United States’ lax immigration laws to gain entry.
The rule is that the first thing these people will go through is a ‘credible fear interview’ with a border patrol officer. In this interview they have to show a probability of demonstrating in court that they have a ‘credible fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership of a particular group.’ If yes, they may remain in the United States (either in detention or on parole) while awaiting their Judicial hearing (and due to the tremendous case backlog the wait may be years.) If the officer believes there isn’t a credible fear of persecution, they can be immediately removed from the U.S.
Forced to Take Asylum Seekers at Their Word
The administration seems most frustrated by immigration authority’s inability to verify the claims the individual asylum seekers are making and therefore being forced therefore to take them at their word. And of course someone could make up even out of thin air a tale of threats and violence in their homeland for the purpose of claiming asylum. Perhaps some of the people in the caravan are exaggerating or even lying. But what verification can authorities reasonably request?
Here’s the reason two men give for seeking asylum, as reported in a story in Time magazine:
Nefi Hernandez, 24, said a gang in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, threatened to kill him and his family if he did not sell drugs. He intended to seek asylum with his wife and baby daughter, who was born on the journey through Mexico.
Jose Cazares, 31, said he faced death threats in the Honduran city of Yoro because a gang member suspected of killing the mother of his children learned one of his sons reported the crime to police.
How are these people supposed to prove these claims? Drug cartels don’t deliver threats via certified mail. So let’s say a judge decides to probe deeper and ask for details. Who made these threats? What do they look like? All questions that may seem reasonable.
Verification Isn’t Possible
The problem is that if the asylum seeker reveals this information, the word will get back home. If Guatemalan authorities use names or other details asylum seekers reveal in immigration court to make arrests or further their investigations, gangs might very likely take revenge on the asylum seekers families. That might seem remote to a U.S. judge or immigration official, but to someone who has actually fled Guatemalan gangs those prospects are likely terrifying.
The reality is that asylum seekers in every context are most often people who have fled their homes suddenly, often using trickery or subterfuge to get away. They likely have little or no money or possessions, since whatever they did have they would have been forced to leave behind. For reasons connected to the circumstances of their flight they may not have been able to take identification or legal documents. And they likely fear that whatever violence or persecution they fled from may either follow them to their new home or target loved ones left behind.
So by and large asylum seekers are never going to be able to prove their story in court with testimony and documents the way litigants are required to in regular proceedings. The principle that countries must grant asylum to people fleeing persecution means that countries must expose themselves at least somewhat to the possibility of being duped.
When we consider the tremendous hardships these people have endured to travel from Guatemala to the U.S. border, it’s hard to believe they would have done it if they felt there was any way they could have stayed home. The demand that asylum seekers provide specific proof of their credible threat of persecution is really an attack on the legal requirement that countries grant asylum itself.
Summary: The U.S. government is frustrated that it is being forced to take asylum seekers at their word regarding the credible threats they face back home. But there is no way these threats can reasonably be verified. Demanding witnesses and documents amounts to refusing to shoulder the responsibility of granting asylum itself.