Anna-Catherine Brigida graduated from USC in May 2015 with a degree in print and digital journalism and a minor in international relations. She now works as a freelance journalist in Latin America.
Immigration reform has once again risen to the top of policy issues for the Obama
Administration, this time surrounding the recent surge in young Central American immigrants
crossing the U.S-Mexico border. The New York Times recently reported that double the amount
of unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed this year than at the same time last
year, sparking accusations of an “invasion” on one side and calls of compassion from the other
(Park). Republicans, such as Steve Stockman and Michelle Bachman, favor sending these
children back to their home countries (Haraldsson). Bachman even went so far as to link the
surge of migrants to the issue of foreign terrorists entering the United States (Haraldsson). On the
other side, many view the debate through a different lens— one of compassion for the violence
these migrants face back home. Pope Francis issued a statement referring to the situation as a
“humanitarian crisis” and encouraged that “these children be welcomed and protected”
(Haraldsson). Based on a recent poll by Washington Post, most Americans believe Pope Francis
has the right idea and are in favor of granting these children refugee status (Grossman). Yet, this
compassion might not be enough to make this happen. The world of politics and legal procedures
often favors reasoning and logic over sentimentality, and logic is not currently on the side of
these migrants. Two of the main conditions in order to be granted refugee status in the United
States are that migrants are fleeing out of fear of persecution and that this persecution is based on
political, religious, or ethnic grounds. Many young Central American migrants are in fact fleeing
persecution, but limiting specific types of persecution leaves a vacuum for skeptics to deny
Central American migrants refugee status. Political, religious, or ethnic persecution may not be
the main reason these migrants flee but rather a component of the larger problem of drug and
gang-related violence. Based on the current U.S. definition of refugee, these Central American
immigrants are in murky waters. Thus, these legal processes need to be changed to match the
compassion that the majority feels for these recent migrants. In order to grant these child
migrants refugee status, the legal definition of refugee in the United States should be expanded to
include those fleeing from gang and drug-related violence in order to accommodate recent shifts
in the type of persecution many face, particularly in Central America.
To understand this current round of immigration, one must understand who exactly is
fleeing Central America and what they are fleeing from. The majority of the unaccompanied
minors crossing the border are coming from what is referred to as the “Northern Triangle,”
composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Restrepo). These countries each rank in the
top five countries with the highest murder rate per capita, with Honduras ranking first, El
Salvador fourth, and Guatemala fifth (Alfred). This violence is a result of gang activity and the
drug trade. In El Salvador, the presence of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13,
instills fear in residents. Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar in El Salvador researching why
these young migrants decide to leave, has found the most common reason to be gang-related
violence (Hinojosa). Many are threatened when they try to avoid joining the gang or when they
cross into another gang’s territory. The gang also has a significant presence in Honduras and
Guatemala. In Honduras, however, drug-related crime is the most prevalent. It is estimated that
80 percent of cocaine passes through Honduras from the northern South American countries on
the way to the United States, causing gangs to fight over distribution rights (Ramos). These
factors have all led to a crisis of violence in these three Central American countries, not just a
crisis of economic hardship.
Since the search for economic opportunities does not merit refugee status by itself, it is
important to recognize this is not the main cause of migration although it may be a contributing
factor. If this wave of immigration was just about finding economic opportunities, we would see
a wave of immigration from all over Central America, but this is not the case. While all the
Central American countries face a significant amount of poverty and economic hardship,
countries such as Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica are not sending migrants to the United
States in the same numbers as the Northern Triangle countries. In fact, there have not been many
migrants at all from Central America’s poorest country, Nicaragua. From October 1, 2013 to
June 30, 2014 only 178 children from Nicaragua were apprehended at the border compared to
16,546 from Honduras (Replogle). This is a stark contrast for two countries with similar rates of
poverty. Both fall into the category of medium human development according to the Human
Development Report, which measures poverty in each of the 187 countries around the world
(Human Development Index). Honduras ranks slightly higher than Nicaragua in human
development at 129th versus Nicaragua at 132nd (Human Development Index). Nicaragua also
has a much lower rate of violence with only 11.3 homicides per 100,000 people compared to
Honduras at 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people (Replogle). Costa Rica and Panama are also on
the lower end of this spectrum with 8.5 and 17.2 homicides per 100,000 people respectively
(Replogle). The rates in El Salvador and Guatemala are 41.2 and 39.9 homicides per 100,000
people respectively (Replogle). These southern Central American countries also lack the gang
and drug presence of the Northern Triangle countries. Although migration is caused by a variety
of factors, the contrast between the number of child migrants from Northern Triangle countries
compared to other countries in Central America suggests that economic hardship is not the
driving factor but rather the violence that plagues Northern Triangle countries.
These immigrants are in fact fleeing for fear of their lives, but the current definition used
in the United States does not recognize gang and drug-related violence as a valid reason for
refugee status; thus, the U.S. refugee definition should be expanded to meet current international
standards. Other international governing bodies have adapted their own refugee definition as
global issues have transformed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees originally
defined refugee in a Post-World War II context, stating that a refugee is someone who:
As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of
being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular
social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or,
owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who,
not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as
a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
(Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees).
While this has served as the foundation of the UNHCR’s refugee definition, there have also been
significant changes made to adapt to changes in international migration patterns. In a 1967
provision to the definition, the qualification that one must be a refugee in relation to the events
prior to January 1951 was removed (Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of
Refugees). In 1986, the definition was further expanded to accommodate the patterns of violence
and migration in Latin America to include “refugee persons who have fled their countries
because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign
aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which
have seriously disturbed public order” (Cartagena Declaration on Refugees). Furthermore, the
UNHCR is continuously assessing their policies in each region. In their most recent report on the
Americas, the organization acknowledged, “one of the main recommendations was to address
forced displacement resulting from criminal violence in the region from a humanitarian
perspective” (UNHCR Global Report 2013 (The Americas), 174). While the UNHCR’s 1951
definition serves as the foundation for the refugee definition, it is always evolving to consider
changes in the international system, as should the U.S. definition.
Although the United States has made slight updates to its refugee definition since the
original 1951 convention, these updates do not sufficiently address the problems of drug and
gang-related violence, which have become important global issues. The U.S. Citizen and
Immigration Services refugee definition follows the United Nations 1951 original convention
definition and its 1967 amendment (Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate-
Officer Training). However, the definition does not recognize the international Cartagena
Convention but rather added two clauses unique to the United States. The first is the Refugee Act
of 1980, which offered economic assistance to those with refugee status to help them thrive once
in the United States (Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate- Officer
Training). The second is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of
1996, which cracked down on those involved in the process of illegal immigration, such as
smugglers or fake document manufacturers (Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations
Directorate- Officer Training). The only addition that the U.S has made to the United Nations
definition is expanding the fear of persecution to include past persecution. Other than this
addition, the United States has not significantly updated their definition of refugee in nearly 50
years. Yet, the world is not the same as it was in the aftermath of World War II where new
borders were shaping a new world order, anti-Semitism was still high, and previously colonized
countries were still struggling to find their place in the international system. When the issue of
gangs and drug trafficking emerged in the 1980s, it greatly affected migration patterns, but this
has yet to be taken into account with regards to the United States’ legal definition of refugee status.
This failure to address the shifting trends in migration patterns is problematic because it
provides opposition with a legal framework to deny refugee status to those who need it. One
writer for Investors.com makes the distinction between recent Central American refugees and
what he believes to be “genuine refugees.” He defines a genuine refugee as someone who fits
into the U.S. definition of fleeing political, religious, or ethnic violence, which he believes does
not describe Central American refugees. This author is conceptualizing refugee based on a set of
criteria determined in 1951, not whether he believes these migrants are in danger back home. A
writer for Fox News Latino, Nathaniel Parish Flannery, finds this logic to be problematic. While
Flannery argues for refugee status in an article for Fox News Latino, he recognizes that this is
not the norm within the legal system: “Victims of genocides and members of social groups
targeted for discrimination and violence in their home countries are eligible for asylum in the
U.S.; Migrants who flee high crime environments generally are not.” What Flannery points to is
a legal processes in the United States that does not favor granting refugee status to Central
American migrants fleeing gang and drug-related violence. This current refugee definition
wrongly excludes certain groups of immigrants from gaining refugee status and thus creates a
political and legal framework that condones this exclusion.
Beyond the issue of the exact wording of the U.S. refugee definition that hinders these
child migrants from receiving refugee status, the overall politicization of determining refugee
status poses a problem. Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch
explains how he views the process of granting refugee status: “By its very nature, it’s not a legal
process, it’s a political process” (Gordon). Frelick finds this frustrating because he believes it has
become more of a popularity contest for refugee groups over who can gain the most support
rather than who really needs the refugee designation. In this current process of defining refugees,
country quotas trump compassion. This failure to update the refugee definition may not be the
only problem with the current immigration system but an indicator of a larger issue. The issue of
refugee status is highly politicized and is not truly about providing a safe haven for people in
need. Let’s take Syria for example. There are an estimated 2 million Syrian refugees, most living
in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan and half of which are children (Lind). Approximately 70,000
refugees fled Syria just last year, a number of a similar caliber to the young Central American
migrants who have recently crossed the border (Lind). The Obama administration decided to set
a quota for Syrian refugees at 2,000 for this year, less than three percent of the refugees (Lind).
They set the number for recent Central American migrants slightly higher at 4,000, but it is not
clear the reasoning behind either of these numbers (Lee). Currently, refugee status is determined
by an outdated refugee definition and a seemingly arbitrary quota system rather than an efficient
way of deciding who needs asylum. In this way, this system is failing to adequately accomplish
what it has set out to do: provide asylum to those who lack safety in their home countries.
The current immigration system, particularly in the case of refugee status, is in dire need
of reform. Immigration is a hot topic in the political sphere and it is not going away any time
soon. In order to fix immigration in the United States, we need a total shift in the way we
understand immigration issues and conceptualize solutions. The problems that cause child
migrants to flee Central America are deeply complex and have systemic roots that need to be
dismantled. A shift towards granting more migrants refugee status would lead the United States
to find solutions to the gang and drug-related issues of Central America, which are deeply
connected to the United States. This would be more effective than the current strategy of putting
a Band-Aid over the issue by pursuing policies such as working with Mexican officials to ensure
these migrants can’t make it to the border. Refugee status should be about granting asylum to
those who need it, but right now this is not the case. The United States needs to shift the focus
towards building a system of offering asylum that actually accomplishes its purpose. Rethinking
how we define refugee is one way to begin.
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