“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
For more than 100 years, these words have greeted millions of people who have fled their homes in search of a new life. Yet today, while the words of Emma Lazarus may have weathered the storms over the last century, I wonder if our hearts and minds have done the same.
According to various reports, including reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 24 people are displaced every minute. One in every 122 human beings today is either a refugee, displaced, or seeking asylum. Half of them are children. Those numbers have skyrocketed in the last five years and are continuing to rise at an alarming rate. The most widely recognized cause of displacement is, predictably, war and political turmoil, with Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia currently leading the world in terms of numbers of refugees, asylees, or displaced people.
I want to address two things in this piece:
- How do you get to be a refugee or asylee in the United States; and
- the U.S.’s insistence on turning a blind eye to Central American asylum seekers.
One in 122
“So these refugees ... I mean, they can just say they want to come here and we have to let them in, right?”
As much as Trump and Fox News might like you to believe that, that’s not how it works in real life. First, there are two terms that are being used interchangeably but can mean different things: refugee and asylee. Both groups of people are fleeing their countries of origin based on a well-founded fear of persecution. Moreover, that persecution must be on account of one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Persecution on any other basis that does not fall into one of those five categories means not qualifying for asylum. Both refugees and asylees are seeking shelter outside of their own countries, but they differ in the way in which they apply for that status.
Refugees apply for their status before they come to the United States, most often through the UNHCR or other nongovernment organization. As a part of their application and resettlement process, they are put through security and background checks to screen out anyone who may have a criminal history or be involved in any organization or group that could be deemed a criminal or terrorist organization. What constitutes “involvement” and what makes something a “terrorist organization” is, by the way, not so black and white. But we shall leave that discussion for another time. Nevertheless, there are so many things that can trigger these kinds of disqualifiers that this vetting and resettlement process for refugees takes anywhere from 18 months to two years. In the meantime, people are forced to wait in refugee camps (often not too far from the country from which they fear persecution) for news of their clearance and eventual resettlement during that entire time.
Kime Abduli, Marquette 2012, is a managing attorney with and owner of Abduli Immigration Law in West Allis where she specializes in immigration law.
According to UNHCR data, more than 21 million people worldwide were registered as refugees while another 40 million had been forced to flee their homes but found themselves trapped within the confines of their own countries. In total, over 65 million people worldwide are running for their lives. And those are just the ones we’ve counted. By the end of 2015, barely 52,500 had been resettled in the United States. I’m no mathematician, but that’s not even 1 percent.
The Vetting Process
Asylees, while also fleeing persecution, apply for refugee at a U.S. port of entry or within one year of entering the United States. So their vetting process (yes, there is still a vetting process) takes place here. So how does that work? They just file an application and wait and then that’s it, right? Not really. Applicants file an application for asylum and then undergo security clearances and background checks, the same as they would for refugee status. Then they attend an interview with an asylum officer to whom they must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution, and that that persecution is based on one of the five grounds mentioned before. They also need to prove that they have not themselves been involved in the persecution themselves, and that they are otherwise a person of “good moral character.” If the asylum officer believes their case, they may grant asylum to the applicant. If not, they will refer them to immigration court where the applicant will have to present his/her claim to an immigration judge.
This process currently takes 2-3 years, depending on which asylum office has jurisdiction. The applicant cannot work for the first six months, but can request work authorization once their application has been pending for 150 days. If their case is referred to an immigration court, add five more years of waiting to this processing time (Chicago Immigration Court is scheduling final hearings for 2020 and 2021, sometimes even 2022). So it could be eight years before someone who fled to the United States is actually granted asylum. Assuming it’s granted. Also assuming no appeals.
More than 84,000 applications for asylum were filed in 2015, while 61,500 were still pending from 2014, for a grand total of 145,500 applications. Only 40,000 were reviewed, which means they didn’t even make it through the 2014s that were still pending, and the 2015s are probably still in the same shipping box in which they were received. Forty percent of the cases that were reviewed were granted. Fifty-two percent, however, were referred to immigration court. Of the 45,770 applications that the immigration court received in 2015, only 18 percent were granted. The others were either denied, abandoned, withdrawn, or are waiting for 2022 to show up so they can finally have their day in court.
Asylum and Refugee Status - Most Difficult to Attain
So what does this mean? It means you don’t just “get” asylum. You don’t just “get” to be a refugee. It means that after you give us your “tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” we still hold you at the door for a very, very long time before we actually let you “breathe free.” Asylum and refugee status is probably one of the most difficult application processes in the immigration system, and these applicants are typically the most vetted. And that’s on top of the horrific conditions they’ve witnessed and lived through that gave rise to their flight to begin with. People don’t become refugees because “life is hard.” People become refugees because it’s life or death.
Even so, not all applicants are treated equally. In light of the refugee crisis happening today with the people of Syria, I was recently asked if refugees from other parts of the world are treated with similar attention. Arguably, not. We have a refugee and displaced persons crisis happening virtually in our backyard in the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and hardly anyone bats an eye. Why? Because it’s not a war zone, and therefore, must not be “that bad.” Yet each year, Honduras and El Salvador find themselves vying for the title of the “Worlds Deadliest Country.”
Twenty-three Times Worse
2015’s “winner,” El Salvador, secured its title with a homicide rate of 104 per 100,000. In case you’re not sure what that means, the U.S.’s homicide rate is 4.5. Yeah. So take the U.S. homicide rate (which many would argue is pretty bad), and then make it 23 times worse, and then you have El Salvador. In 2016 so far, cartels, gangs, and other criminal organizations in El Salvador have been claiming over 20 lives per day. And with an impunity rate of over 90 percent for homicide and femicide cases, people are getting the heck out.
More than 330,000 people from the Northern Triangle countries were apprehended at the Southwest border in 2015; almost 40,000 of them were unaccompanied children under the age of 18. The vast majority seek asylum in the United States; yet, of the 10,469 Salvadorian applications for asylum received by the immigration courts in 2015, less than 3 percent were granted. Less than 4 percent of Honduran cases were granted. Because even with a homicide rate 23 times higher than ours, our government seems to think it’s not that bad.
In short, the world may still send its tempest-tossed to us, but we keep looking for ways to snuff the light out at the door when they get here. Which brings me back to my initial question: have our hearts and minds weathered the century of immigration storms, or are they drowning at the feet of Lady Liberty?