The Facts About Immigration and Asylum

Immigration in America has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. Until 1954, Ellis Island was the gateway by which millions of immigrants entered the United States. Today, there are a staggering 328 ports of entry into the U.S., and a rising number of asylum-seekers are coming from Central America. But despite increasing media coverage of caravans and border walls, how foreign-born individuals and families enter the country today remains a mystery for many Americans.

What Qualifies as Asylum
Most people seeking entry into the U.S. today do so for one of three reasons: persecution, poverty, or gang violence. Some of them have strong cases for asylum; others don’t.

  • According to asylum law, anyone who can prove they have a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or social group should be granted asylum under U.S. law. For example, several dozen Nicaraguans are reported to be in the caravan traveling north this month. Given the known and horrific violence toward peaceful dissenters of the Ortega government, if they are able to demonstrate a fear of persecution due to political or religious persuasion, these Nicaraguans may have a strong case.
  • In contrast, those fleeing poverty or economic hardship alone do not qualify for asylum. Though it may be understandable that those living in extreme poverty, barely surviving on just a few dollars per day, would make the trek north in search of a better life, if they cannot prove that they are fleeing persecution, they will not be granted asylum.
  • Until recently, victims of gang or domestic violence had strong cases for asylum. Many come from El Salvador and Honduras, which have two of the highest homicide rates in the world, largely committed by gangs. However, this June former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overrode existing precedent to clarify that those fleeing “private violence,” like gang violence, would no longer be considered for asylum. This means only people who can prove persecution at the hands of the government have a chance at asylum.

What Happens at the Border
When a person reaches a U.S. port of entry, he or she is given a credible fear interview, intended to weed out frivolous claims. If someone does not pass this round, they are likely to be deported quickly, usually after a period of detention. Those who pass the interview may be detained for a time and then released, with a notice to appear for a removal hearing where they can present their asylum claim.

While waiting for an asylum hearing, these individuals are neither authorized to work for at least the first several months, nor are they eligible for public benefits; they’re mostly relying on family, friends, church, or other non-profit groups for sustenance. They can be released with an ankle bracelet, or they may be detained indefinitely pending their court ruling, with the option to pay a bond to be released until their court hearing. Those unable to pay bond often stay in detention for months or even years.

It can take years for an asylum-seeker to get a hearing, because of an inadequate number of immigration judges.

Legal Options for Immigration
Why don’t people simply request an immigrant visas from their home countries? Their options are limited.

  • One way people can file to enter the U.S. is through a family sponsorship. However, only individuals with an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident can file. Even in these cases, the process can take years.
  • Highly skilled workers can be granted employer-sponsored visas. These workers typically have a Master’s degree or higher.
  • The diversity visa lottery is open to people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. Candidates must also meet the education and/or work experience standard. The odds of winning this lottery are slim. In 2018, chances of winning the Diversity Lottery were 1 in 462.
  • Refugees who have fled their country to another due to persecution can be granted a visa after a strict vetting process. Of 25.4 million refugees globally who meet this legal definition of a refugee, the U.S. admits less than 1 percent each year.
  • The last option is to reach the U.S. and request asylum at the border. To be approved, asylum-seekers will need to demonstrate that they have a credible fear of persecution.

The asylum process in America can be murky, especially for asylum-seekers who don’t understand our laws. But Americans have the power to enact fair and lasting change in immigration and asylum policy by asking members of Congress and the White House to ensure that asylum laws are respected; that families are kept together and out of detention as their claims are considered; and that our refugee resettlement program be strengthened.

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief and the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate. You can follow him on Twitter: @MatthewSoerens.

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