Forced Migration and the U.S. Southern Border

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz delivered remarks at Saint John’s Church in Washington, DC on May 5, 2019. He explains that for many tens of thousands of Central Americans—and even hundreds of thousands—forced migration is fueled by well-founded fears of women, men, and children about serious and striking abuses of their human rights.

Remarks as prepared:

It is a pleasure to talk with you today about refugee and asylum issues, and in particular, about the challenges relating to forced migration and the southern border.

To be sure, forced migration from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—the Northern Triangle of Central American—has in considerable measure been caused by grinding poverty. But in recent years, in particular, it has also become quite apparent that for many tens of thousands of Central Americans—and even hundreds of thousands—forced migration is fueled by well-founded fears of women, men, and children about serious and striking abuses of their human rights—in particular, fear of being targeted and threatened with death or other severe harms by criminal gangs and, in the case of women, as a result of domestic violence.

The evidence of this is simply overwhelming. Several years ago, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, called the Northern Triangle “the deadliest zone in the world outside of active war zones.” And subsequently, in 2014, General Fraser’s successor, General John Kelly, who later became White House Chief of Staff, wrote that drug cartels and gang activity had left, and I quote, “near-broken societies in their wake.”

A 2014 report from the UN’s refugee agency, based on surveys of unaccompanied minors from Central America and Mexico, revealed that a substantial majority of children had significant fears of serious personal harm if returned, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics reveal that high percentages of women from Central America risk severe mistreatment if returned to their countries of origin.

I and others from Refugees International have traveled to the border, and our teams have heard heart-breaking testimony that corroborates these statistics—from girls and women threatened by domestic and gang violence, or from a father who had spirited his young son out of Guatemala to escape gangs intent on extorting his family and bringing the young boy into their clutches—reflecting the circumstances of so many who have fled the Northern Triangle out of deep fear.

Before considering how to deal with this particular humanitarian challenge, let me provide a short brief on some of the key international and domestic practices, treaties, and laws that governments, including our own, have established to deal with forced flight.

The bedrock international obligation is the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Adopted by an international conference of states in 1951, it was focused on post-WW2 European refugees, but its terms were extended worldwide by a 1967 protocol to which the United States became a party during the Johnson administration. That document defines a refugee as an individual who is outside their country of origin because of a well- founded fear of being persecuted—that is, being severely mistreated—due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

The convention and protocol state that refugees may not be returned to the frontiers of a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened due any of those five grounds. U.S. law, implementing obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, provides that any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival) may apply for asylum. Under the convention and protocol, persecution can come at the hands of the state or others, especially if a state is unwilling or unable to exercise protection.

But providing asylum, based on individualized claims of persecution is not really the end of the story of how governments now provide protection to people in flight. Today, there are some 70 million people displaced by conflict, persecution, and abuses of human rights, and, by some estimates, another 25 million or so who are displaced due to disasters resulting from natural hazards—often exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Of the total, there are some 25 million people who have been forced out of their countries of origin—beyond the borders of their countries of origin—due to persecution, human rights violations, and violence, and the vast majority will not go through any individualized refugee determination process. Yet we know in our hearts and we know in our heads that return to their countries of origin is just not possible. For instance, many of the millions of Syrians who fled to neighboring countries were not fleeing individualized persecution, but none of us would have argued, or would argue, that they should not have had the ability—indeed, the right, to flee and gain refuge.

In some cases, the United Nations refugee agency has declared large groups of people in flight to be prima facie refugees—refugees at first impression—and have asked governments not to force them back. And in Africa and Latin America, governments have even agreed to include in their legal definitions of refugees people who are fleeing widespread disruptions in public order.

Domestic laws and practices have followed suit. From Germany and Turkey, to Jordan and Uganda and Colombia, and even the United States, a variety of laws and practices offer protection and rights to those individuals who might not always meet the 1951 Convention definition of refugee, but should not be returned to their countries of origin.

So why is this important?

First, because it helps us to appreciate that greater tolerance and inclusion—rather than greater restriction on who might benefit from protection—is essential if governments are really serious about providing help to asylum-seekers at grave risk. Second, because it helps us to appreciate that many governments have begun to exercise that effort at inclusion. And, third, and perhaps most important for us today, the record demonstrates that the United States actually bears a relatively minor burden, and is doing far less than poorer and less populous countries hosting refugees.

For instance, more than one million South Sudanese refugees are now in Uganda, where that government has offered land, education, and work opportunities for this refugee population. As many as one million Syrians are in Jordan, where, again, that government is providing refugees with the chance to educate their children and to work. The government of Colombia has articulated a policy of inclusion to handle some 1.4 million Venezuelans, and the government of Bangladesh is providing refuge to about a million Rohingya. None of those governments have argued for walls, despite their limited capacity to host such large populations.

What exactly are the components of a responsible approach that addresses migration management, is consistent with U.S. law and our treaty obligations, reflects a modicum of humanity, and might even offer the prospect of greater regional stability?

The answer, of course, is that a complicated challenge like this one demands a multifaceted response.

First, and perhaps most importantly, U.S. political leadership must end the demonization and vilification of asylum seekers and its threats to end the system of asylum altogether—because these actions are immoral and unethical and because they unreasonably stoke fear and anger among the population.

The Trump administration should also put an end to what are now a broad array of efforts to block access to asylum— American officials shouldn’t be telling asylum seekers they cannot apply for asylum in obvious violation of U.S. law; they should not inform thousands asylum seekers at ports of entry that their cases cannot be processed in a timely manner and that they must come back later; they should not criminally prosecute asylum seekers who have entered the United States between ports of entry; they should not detain asylum seekers who have credible claims that they have been subjected to persecution; and they should not force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico in highly unsafe conditions and without effective access to due process.

They should not take these actions because they are cruel, because violate U.S. law or legal commitments to which the United States has acceded, because they put asylum seekers at grave risk of exploitation or worse at the hands of criminal gangs in northern Mexico, and because they break faith with Mexico, which is already hosting thousands of Central Americans formally seeking asylum in Mexico and unknown numbers of others who are simply taking refuge there.

But, of course, injecting humanity—a spirit of compassion of fellowship—into U.S. policy in this way will not completely solve the policy challenges relating to migration from Central America.

So let me suggest several other measures.

First, as I and 18 other former senior U.S. government officials argued in a letter to Vice President Pence and then-President-Elect López Obrador some months ago, there are a number of actions the United States could take to more effectively manage asylum processing challenges, including—and if I may quote from the letter—“by strengthening Customs and Border Protection processing capacity at ports of entry, increasing the number of immigration judges who can hear cases, implementing alternatives to detention that have been proven to be effective and have resulted in asylum seekers showing up for their hearings, and moving forward on a range of measures to reduce the backlog of asylum cases.” These last measures, some of which were described in a recent report of the highly respected Migration Policy Institute, included, for example, permitting asylum officers (rather than immigration judges) to initially consider credible asylum claims that have a high likelihood of being approved.

Second, the administration should dramatically increase support to Mexico to enable it to process, protect, and support asylum seekers. As written, Mexican laws and policies offer broader protections than those provided under U.S. asylum law, and enhanced Mexican capacity would lessen migration pressures on the United States.

Third, the administration should expand support for what is known as the Protection Transfer Agreement, whereby asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle obtain temporary refuge in Costa Rica and then can be processed for refugee admission in the United States, Canada, and other countries.

Fourth, the United States should consider implementing a special humanitarian admissions initiative focused particularly on Central Americans, a program that would create an orderly and legal migration path from Central America to the United States, especially since many Central Americans who are migrating have family members in the United States. With an orderly channel established, this would diminish pressures and dangers at our southern border. In dealing with large scale migration from other parts of the world over the last many decades, U.S. administration’s have instituted similar efforts that proved to be effective.

Fifth, the administration should dramatically increase assistance to enhance protection upon return to those deported to Central America who may not qualify for asylum but may still be at grave risk. It’s just unethical and should be unacceptable to be deporting people without assuming greater responsibility for addressing protection concerns upon return.

Sixth, the president should appoint a special envoy for Central America and dramatically increase assistance to promote governance and development.

Vice President Pence recently told Central American governments that the United States Is committed to their prosperity, but the administration proposed significant FY 2018 and 2019 cuts in development funding to the region and, as of last year, had announced its intention to comply with an extraordinary demand that all aid to Central American countries be cut off.

Let me return to what to my mind is most troubling, most important to address, and, tragically, perhaps least likely to be achieved: the need for the administration to lower the public temperature on this issue. The highly charged and inaccurate rhetoric that vilifies the asylum seeker population tends to foreclose humane and effective policy options, not to mention increasing fear and uneasiness within the Hispanic and other minority communities.

While this is terribly unsettling, it is hardly the first time in our history that such rhetoric has infected our politics. There was anti-Irish Catholic Know-nothingism and “yellow peril” anti-Chinese sentiment in the 19th century; there were the anti-semitic rants of Father Charles Coughlin and the tragedy of Japanese internment in the 20th century. There have always been voices of intolerance who have stoked fear and ignorance. The language of threat and invasion is not new—targets have just shifted in the 21st century to Muslims and Central Americans. To be sure, in our lifetimes, we haven’t had such highly charged rhetoric at such senior levels, and that makes today’s challenge far more significant and far more substantial.

But, to my mind, that only reinforces the imperative for other leaders to come forward to decry expressions of fear and intolerance, focus on evidenced based policy, and trumpet the values that have best animated our national narrative and have given strength and purpose to the U.S. role in the world.