Migration and Asylum of Central Americans in the Trump Era

By Sonja Wolf

Dr. Wolf is a CONACYT Research Fellow with the CIDE Región Centro in Mexico and author of Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (University of Texas Press, 2017).

During his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump had taken a hardline stance on immigration. In his “Contract with the American Voter”, the Republican candidate had pledged to begin removing “the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” and subject travelers from “terror-prone” countries to “extreme vetting”. A new “End Illegal Immigration Act” would fund the construction of a southern border wall and impose harsh sanctions on repeat immigration violators. There was widespread skepticism about whether the Trump administration would follow through on these and other outlandish campaign promises. But in his first week in office, the President has shown that he intends to do precisely that.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” seeks to temporarily bar the nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, reprioritize minority (i.e., Christian) refugee claims, and exclude Syrian refugees indefinitely. When it came into effect, the Executive Order resulted in the revocation of tens of thousands of visas and disrupted travel for legal permanent residents as well as recognized refugees. Vaguely phrased and broad in scope, the document sparked protests at US airports and drew the ire of immigration lawyers and activists that condemned the travel ban for its discriminatory nature. The Trump administration appealed against a federal judicial decision that provisionally blocked the Executive Order on a nationwide basis, a federal appeals court prohibited its enforcement.

Unnoticed by many, the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program was also suspended. The initiative had been launched in December 2014, a year that saw an apparently heightened influx of unaccompanied Central American migrant children flee gangs and violence to the United States. The CAM Program allows youths under the age of 21 who qualify for refugee status and live in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to join their legally residing parents in the United States. Although the Central American countries have no terrorism concerns, the future of this program is uncertain now that anti-immigration Senator Jeff Sessions has been confirmed as Attorney General.

Even before Donald Trump was sworn in as President, Customs and Border Protection officers have been unlawfully turning asylum seekers away at the US-Mexico border. This situation has put an additional strain on shelters and public services in border cities. Throughout 2016 Tijuana, one of the busiest crossings, saw the arrival of more than ten thousand Haitians who had fled their earthquake-devastated country before abandoning recession-hit Brazil in the hope of obtaining Temporary Protected Status in the United States. They were joined by African migrants who feel unwelcome in Europe and by Cubans who became stranded at the border when in January 2017 the Obama administration ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

This state of affairs is bound to be exacerbated by two additional Executive Orders. “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” takes a narrow view of asylum provisions, foresees an expansion of the southern border wall, and steps up immigration enforcement. “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” targets for deportation undocumented immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense” or “pose a risk to public safety or national security”, categories that would include suspected street gang members. However, this executive order also prioritizes for removal those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” or “have engaged in fraud…before a governmental agency”. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, there are some 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, about 8 million of whom engage in some form of remunerated labor. To be able to do so, many may have claimed to hold a valid work permit or used a fake social security number. In Mexico and Central America there is already unease about the impact of intensified deportations of offenders. A potentially much larger pool of returnees, however, would place even greater stress on remittance-dependent countries that are struggling to create employment and effective public services.

Migration dynamics in Mexico itself are diverse, but the largest group is that of undocumented migrants and displaced persons from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). For many years, the economic situation and the desire to reunite with relatives in the United States, annually prompted tens of thousands of Central Americans to travel north. Increasingly, however, young people, and sometimes entire families, abandon their homes to escape gang violence. The victims, who are harassed for refusing to be recruited, rejecting extortion demands or opposing these groups in some way, generally find it impossible to relocate internally and escape gang intelligence networks. Many hope to obtain asylum in either Mexico or the United States. But gang persecution is often difficult to prove, and both countries are reluctant to grant asylum to victims of gang violence.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio Dieciocho, the main street gangs operating in the Northern Triangle, originally formed in immigrant barrios of Los Angeles. Impoverished, overcrowded, and rife with gang activity, these neighborhoods received Central American war refugees that were denied legal status. Their children felt alienated in a foreign culture, and some turned to gangs. The United States has traditionally sought to eliminate its gang problem not through social policies, but through the removal of non-citizens. In the early 1990s stepped-up deportations exported the MS-13 and Barrio Dieciocho to the Northern Triangle. Their members encountered no insertion opportunities and absorbed some of the existing youth gangs. These were small, localized groups that had constituted no significant public security threat.

Over time, however, the gangs developed not only a nationwide presence, but also began using more sophisticated firearms, strengthened their internal structures, became more criminally involved, and committed more brutal and indiscriminate violence. Today the gangs target adolescents in marginal communities for forced recruitment and sexual violence, extort small and medium-size businesses, and exercise strict territorial control. These geographical boundaries limit access for state institutions providing municipal services, companies delivering goods, civil society groups carrying out prevention projects, and outsiders generally. Students are perhaps particularly affected, since many need to commute between rival gang territories on their way from home to school.

Central American governments have tended to tackle the gangs through mano dura (“iron fist”) policies that prioritize neighborhood sweeps and mass arrests of suspected gang members over prevention and rehabilitation. In El Salvador, for example, the strategy has proved popular with voters, but has had detrimental effects on gang evolution and homicide rates. The administrations of the leftist FMLN party, in power since 2009, have stated their commitment to pursuing a comprehensive security policy. The Funes government (2009-2014) even promoted a gang truce in order to curb the country’s homicide rate, but its failure to adopt social measures contributed to the collapse of the ceasefire. Political pressure for results and resource deficits make the implementation of a holistic security policy difficult. Worse yet, the post-truce escalation of violence has also entailed renewed gang attacks on police and “confrontations” that in some cases mask extrajudicial executions by law enforcement. US security assistance has perhaps done more to deter perceived security threats to the United States than to address inequality, corruption, and institutional dysfunctionality in Central America. As long as the climate of violence persists, migration and displacement will continue.

Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has for some time made greater efforts to detain and deport undocumented migrants heading north, most recently through the Southern Border Program. In late 2014, the Obama administration also announced the creation of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a co-financed initiative that seeks to boost economic development, strengthen institutions, and improve public security in Central America. While these are important objectives, making them a reality will necessarily be a long-term endeavor, even with the greatest amount of resources and political will. In the meantime, more effective ways need to be found to process asylum applications and relocate victims of gang persecution. At the moment, it is uncertain what direction US immigration and refugee policy will take under the Trump administration. It seems clear, however, that a regional approach is required that will not consider deterrence as the only possible response to irregular human mobility, but strike a balance between labor market demands and people’s need for jobs and safety. Above all, perhaps, the current era calls for greater activist and educational efforts that help immigration opponents understand why strangers make a long, perilous journey and that diversity make societies richer, not weaker.

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