Most caravan immigrants face long odds on gaining US asylum but may force Congress to fix a broken system

The thousands of immigrants camped along the southern border as part of the controversial caravan may never gain asylum in the USA, but the pressure they placed on the nation’s immigration system may force Congress to revamp an outdated system used to admit people seeking safe haven in America.

President Donald Trump has treated the caravan as a purely law enforcement situation, deploying more than 2,000 National Guardsmen, nearly 6,000 active-duty military troops and hundreds of additional Border Patrol agents to line the border with concertina wire and prevent caravan members from illegally entering the country. He’s also tried to cut off asylum for some members of the caravan, but that move was quickly shot down by federal courts.

That means it may now be up to Congress to find a long-term solution to prevent future waves of caravans and the bigger tide of foreign-born individuals searching for refuge in America.

Immigration experts on both sides of the aisle say Congress must now determine who qualifies for asylum and a fair and speedy process to judge their cases.

Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, said most of the world’s refugee and asylum programs were designed in the years following World War II, set up to respond to the dangers posed by communist regimes and state-sponsored ethnic cleansing. The U.S. is no exception, relying on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to dictate who is considered a refugee or asylee.

“That ended once the Berlin Wall came down in 1989,” said Meissner, now the director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. 

Ever since, she said, governments across the globe have struggled to adapt to a new definition of refuge, which helps explain why countries from the United States to Germany to Greece have struggled in the face of historic surges of refugees across the globe.

In the U.S., asylum and refugee status are similar in that they allow foreigners to enter the country if they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The only difference is that refugees are interviewed and vetted outside the U.S., while asylum seekers make their request and go through the interview process after arriving in the U.S.

Who should get asylum?

One of the areas Congress can change is the grounds under which people can qualify for asylum.

Some of the current qualifications are clear-cut, including religious persecution.

One example is the case of Mr. A, a Pakistani man in his 50s who was granted asylum in the U.S. in October, and whose name is being withheld because he and his family in Pakistan remain under threat.

John Esmay, a New York-based attorney with the Labaton Sucharow law firm who represented him, said Mr. A’s family was Shiite Muslim living in a Sunni-majority nation. Mr. A’s father was killed in the 1970s because of their religion. Mr. A fled to Saudi Arabia to live in hiding, but his religion was discovered by Sunnis there. He moved back to Pakistan with his wife and children, but soon came under attack again before fleeing to the U.S.

Members of the LGBTQ community have also been protected under asylum laws because they qualify as members of a persecuted social group.

For example, Mr. NN, whose identity is also being withheld, won asylum in October after he was forced to flee his native Uganda to the U.S., according to his lawyer, Gregory Asciolla, also of the Labaton Sucharow law firm.

Mr. NN was first attacked at age 13 when his sexual orientation was discovered at school, prompting village elders to banish him from the community. He went into hiding but was discovered again, leading to an attack by machete-wielding villagers who cut off four of his fingertips. A third attack occurred in April when he was assaulted alongside his boyfriend and brother. Mr. NN escaped the attack but learned later that his boyfriend and brother had been killed.

“Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, you have to accept that…there are individuals throughout the world being persecuted, tortured and killed for their beliefs, and just for who they are,” Asciolla said.

The situation becomes far more cloudy for others requesting asylum, especially those migrants coming from Central America.

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