One man I met at the U.S.-Mexico border was jailed by his government. Another fled after protesting a dictator. Neither one is getting a fair chance to apply for asylum in the United States.
I met both men when I traveled to the southern border through World Relief, where I work as an immigration attorney, to provide legal assistance to individuals and families waiting to seek asylum in the United States.
When I arrived at the border I didn’t know what to expect, but what I discovered was that the people waiting in Tijuana do not know about the very process they are stepping into when they ask for asylum, nor the particular kind of indignity with which the United States is currently treating asylum seekers.
The law requires asylum seekers to prove they meet the definition of a refugee. This definition is established in both international treaties and United States immigration law. To have asylum granted, a person must prove they were persecuted or would have faced persecution based on specific factors like race, religion or political opinion if they had remained in their home nation.
As it should be, any person in the United States or who arrives – whether he or she arrives through the desert, at a border crossing, or by sailing a boat into United States’ waters – has the right to apply for asylum and be allowed into the United States while their application is decided.
Instead, contrary to our own laws, asylum-seekers are forced to remain in Mexico – sometimes for weeks or months – and place their name in a notebook. When I arrived, the list contained more than 17,000 people, only a little over 12,000 of whom had even begun the process. With immigration courts shut down until a funding bill is passed, the number of unserved people could have grown further since I returned.
The absurdity of this system is highlighted through the circumstances of Mexican asylum-seekers. Many of these individuals are facing persecution, death threats and violence carried out by Mexican government forces or by gangs that operate throughout Mexico. These individuals are forced to remain in the country they are attempting to flee as long as this system is in place. Those in this situation are made into sitting ducks – trapped with nowhere to go because of the bottleneck our government created.
Those from Mexico and Central America are not the only people waiting at the border either. Families from Azerbaijan, Cameroon and South America are but a small slice of humanity represented in Tijuana.
While at the border, I spoke with a Cameroonian man who was jailed and tortured by his government because he is a member of the English-speaking population in Cameroon. He teared up as we talked – not wanting to dwell on his experience of violence or the separation from his family and homeland. An 18-year-old Nicaraguan teenager spoke of his experience doing what we have the freedom to do: protesting his government’s oppression. His peaceful protest was met with violence from the police and targeted death threats against himself and his brother. He fled, as we all would.
This quagmire at the border is not just illegal, it is unjust. Every day these individuals and families are forced to wait is a day they are further threatened by extreme instability, destitution and violence. Not all who are at the border will be granted asylum, but they have a right to make their claim. There is security in this system. Our asylum process in the United States has a strong history of keeping us safe while still providing refuge to the vulnerable.
The people I met at the border are women, children, men, parents, brothers and sisters. Some in our nation paint them all as dangerous invaders, and criminals attempting to destroy America. We must resist this characterization and remember that the power, prosperity, privilege and liberty we enjoy was built almost entirely by immigrants and their children.
Those coming to the United States to apply for asylum are following our legal process. They are not scheming to game the system. They simply see no other choice to keep themselves and their families safe, and they came to us because we have built a country that promises to protect their unalienable rights – promises broken by their home countries.
Love and generosity, not fear, made the United States a beacon of hope to the world. When we remove the unnecessary obstacles from the path of those seeking refuge, we are not stepping away from who we are as a nation. We are fulfilling our highest aspirations.
Samuel Smith is a graduate of Gonzaga Law School and an immigration attorney at World Relief Spokane.
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