May 7, 2018

In wake of caravan seeking asylum, ASU transborder professor says it’s hard to gauge American sentiment on illegal immigration

The ordeal is finally over for a Central American caravan seeking asylum, with the last of the members crossing the U.S. border on Friday after a week of delays and heavy media attention.

The caravan, comprised of migrant men, women and children from mostly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, traveled approximately 2,000 miles from southern Mexico. They say they are escaping a life of violence, organized crime and immediate danger. Despite their reasons, the caravan of approximately 150 people were given a chilly reception at the U.S. port of entry near San Diego. They spent several nights in shelters, tents and makeshift camps, waiting to get processed.

President Donald Trump and the U.S. Department of Justice used the opportunity to send a tough-stance message to immigrants while advocates on the other side of the issue pushed hard for asylum. To gain a better understanding of this complex issue, ASU Now consulted Eileen Díaz McConnell, a professor in Arizona State University's School of Transborder Studies.

Woman with red hair smiling
Eileen Díaz McConnell

Question: A caravan of more than 150 people showed up at the U.S. border near San Diego seeking asylum in this country last week. What’s going on? 

Answer: Although many people see Mexico as solely the source of migrants, Mexico has long been a transit country that people from Honduras, El Salvador and elsewhere cross through to get to the United States, crossing Mexico on foot and on commercial trainsMcConnell says the train is called la bestia, or the beast, for that reason to get to the U.S. border. It is an extremely dangerous and long journey, with threat of injury or death from falling off a train that is not intended for passengers, [and threat of] sexual violence and exploitation from many bad actors including corrupt officials. These vulnerabilities are increased by the fact that these travelers are very far away from home and have few resources or networks on the trip. This is part of the reason why people might decide to travel in caravan, especially women and those with young children, to try to use safety in numbers to minimize the risk of assault, sexual violence, robberies, etc.  

A collective, Pueblo Sin Fronteras (Town Without Borders), has had a caravan like this for several years. Reporting suggests that several hundred are women and several hundred are children, most are from Honduras. Some of the people traveling in the caravan have asked for asylum in Mexico, while many are petitioning for asylum in the U.S. based on gang violence, organized crime, corruption, government-sponsored violence and repression. Most Central Americans who petition for asylum are denied. 

Q: Why has their entry taken so long to process and will they be allowed entry into this country? 

A: The process of petitioning for asylum takes a long time involving multiple federal agencies, interviewing and screening, and going before a judge to make a case that the requirements of asylum have been met. About 70 percent or more [of] people petitioning for asylum from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who have legal representation are denied and denial rates are even higher for those who don’t have legal representation.

Cuban immigrants have been a prioriRelating to or derived by reasoning from self-evident propositions — presupposed by experience. categorized as refugees deserving of protection, although the "wet foot, dry foot policy" was ended in January 2017. The U.S. government has not categorized immigrants from other countries as meriting the same treatment even though they might have a reasonable fear of persecution or harm. Many migrants traveling in the caravan could meet the requirementsTo qualify for asylum, you must establish that you are a refugee who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, or last habitual residence if you have no nationality, because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (https://www.uscis.gov/i-589). for asylum, either themselves personally or family members experiencing threats or harm in the past and having credible fears of harm if returned to their home countries. However, it’s also clear that judges’ decisions about who meets requirements for asylum are influenced by legal representation and factors that go beyond the specific petitioner, otherwise, there likely wouldn’t be such drastic differences in denial rates across countries.

Q: What are some historical reasons why immigrants flee their native countries to come to the United States?

A: As I begin, it’s important to emphasize that only about 4 percent of the world’s population actually leave their home country for another country, so the reasons that people leave must be incredibly strong.

People leave home countries and come to the U.S. for many reasons. Migration scholars emphasize both factors that push people out of their home country and factors pulling them to another country; and the combination of push and pull factors differ across countries, even within the same region. In the case of those leaving El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, push factors include decades of very high levels of violence. These countries have experienced long and violent civil wars and cities in these countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. It has been difficult to recover from hurricanes, floods and other disasters that have wiped out homes, roads, crops, and greatly affected agriculture and other industries. There are high poverty rates and unemployment rates. Governments in these countries have not only sponsored violence, but have not been able to resolve these long-standing problems that push people out. At the height of civil wars in countries like El Salvador and Honduras, emigrants sought political asylum in the United States, which means that people in El Salvador, Guatemala [and] Honduras may have family members who have been in the U.S. for decades. These social networks already in the U.S., coupled with work opportunities and a higher economic standard of living, help pull political refugees and economic migrants to the United States.

Q: Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said, “When respect for the rule of law diminishes, so too does our ability to protect our great nation, its borders, and its citizens.” That seems to encapsulate the sentiment of many Americans regarding illegal immigration. What is it that most people do not understand or see regarding this situation?

A: In my view, it is difficult to know for sure whether Americans agree with this statement (that declines in rule of law affect ability to protect the nation) or whether Americans believe that this particular caravan of migrants at the border formally seeking entry into the U.S. is not respecting the rule of law. This particular caravan of migrants from Central America are trying to regularize their status and ask for asylum by presenting themselves at the border for admission, they are not trying to enter without formal authorization or overstay visas. That some migrants seeking admission may have been in the U.S. previously without legal status or after a stay of deportation does not necessarily suggest that the same people do not respect the rule of law. The reasons why people remain in the U.S. without legal status are complex and misunderstood. …

Regarding American sentiments about “illegal immigration” — with respect to immigrants in the U.S. without documentation (migration scholars tend to use terms like unauthorized or undocumented rather than illegal) — Americans are relatively divided in views about undocumented immigrants generally, especially by whether the respondents are Republicans, Democrats or Independents. And there is quite a bit of variation in public opinion about what the federal government should do about undocumented migration.

On the other hand, polls results actually suggest that Americans are increasingly positive about immigrants overall as constituting a strength rather than a burden to our country, compared to the 1990s. They are also pretty positive about groups such as undocumented youth finding a way to remain in the U.S. and the majority oppose the construction of a wall on the Southern border.