Conchita Cruz and Swapna Reddy, co-founders of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center, write:
“For one immigrant group—asylum seekers already living in the United States—the fear is especially intense: deportation is a death sentence.
While thousands showed up to support refugee families at airports in response to the refugee ban, many Americans do not realize that a different group of refugee families stands to be picked up in raids, detained and wrongfully deported from the United States. These refugees are called “asylum seekers” because they are seeking refugee status from inside the United States instead of abroad.
For many asylum seekers, there is no mechanism to apply for refugee status abroad, which causes them to come to the U.S.-Mexico border and turn themselves in, seeking refuge. Like their counterparts in airports, they have experienced incredible violence in their countries of origin. They have been brutally raped, threatened by gunpoint to join gangs, or witnessed the murder of loved ones.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) holds asylum seekers in detention centers for weeks or months until they pass a preliminary interview with an asylum officer. If they secure release, they move in with relatives or friends while remaining in deportation proceedings pending a full asylum trial.
Asylum seekers do not have a right to government-appointed counsel though their lives hang in the balance. Instead, families are forced to navigate the complex immigration system alone in a language they do not understand. Many also suffer from trauma-based disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder due to the persecution they experienced in the countries they fled.”
Perhaps contrary to popular perception, we often return individuals to dangerous and life-threatening situations. That’s because of the somewhat arcane “nexus” requirement for asylum that only covers persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
By manipulating these definitions, U.S. Government authorities often can deny protection even to individuals who clearly face life-threatening danger upon return. The Government has worked particularly hard to develop technical legal criteria to disqualify those fleeing danger in the Northern Triangle.
Given the complexity and the highly legalistic nature of the system, competent representation by an attorney is a requirement for due process. For example, according to TRAC, for a sample population of Northern Triangle “women with children,” slightly more than 26% of those with lawyers got favorable decisions from the Immigration Court. Without lawyers, only 1.5% succeeded.
And, if the law were interpreted more reasonably and generously, in accordance with the spirit of asylum protection, I think that a substantial majority of those applying for asylum from the Northern Triangle would be granted relief. Pressure for more favorable interpretations will not come from unrepresented individuals who can’t speak English, let alone articulate, document, and support sophisticated legal arguments for better interpretations of protection laws.