What is Jeff Sessions really doing?

By Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Advocacy Director for the Americas with Amnesty International USA

A couple of weeks ago U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech to the Executive Office for Immigration Review called on Congress to pull to pieces the legal framework in place to protect individuals seeking asylum in the United States, and last week in Texas he reiterated that is the aim of the President’s immigration priorities. Under the pretenses of “fix[ing] the immigration system” because it is “broken”, and filled with “rampant abuse and fraud”, Sessions called on Congress to dismantle the U.S. asylum system.

The Attorney General claimed there is a crisis at the U.S border and attributes it to the ‘fraud and failure of the asylum system”. He said “‘the system is being gamed” because of the abuse in the credible fear process which is a legal process set up to make sure people with a credible fear of being persecuted, tortured or killed in their country of origin are not returned to face that predicament.

Sessions cited “shocking statistics” of a 19-fold increase in removal proceedings, as DHS conducted 94,000 credible fear interviews in 2016, versus 5,000 in 2009.

Why is that? Did aliens from outer-space descend into the Southern Border?

No, this increase is not disjointed from regional reality nor attributed only to people migrating for better lives in the North. Desperate children and families have been fleeing torture and sexual violence, and a great percentage of them were among the 68,000 people who arrived at the U.S Southern Border from Central America in 2014. According to the UN refugee agency, the number of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala applying for asylum all over the world increased by 597% between 2010 and 2015.

Now, who are these asylum seekers?

They are people like Natalia, Luis and Tomás*. Natalia fled El Salvador from the same infamous gang (MS-13) President Trump and Attorney General Sessions are promising to annihilate, seeking to protect herself and her young son, and re-join her husband who had been granted protection in the United States. Natalia’s husband, Luis, was a private business owner in El Salvador who was being extorted by the gang to pay “rent” and provide free services under threats of violence. The one time he refused, he was driven to a remote area and was beaten, with further threats to him and his family if he refused to pay the gang members or provide free services in the future. A month after the assault, Luis was arrested by police on suspicion of belonging to the MS-13 gang. Luis cooperated with law enforcement and provided them information which led to the arrest of several gang members. Fearing that his cooperation would expose him to the gang, Luis fled El Salvador to seek asylum in the United States.

Amnesty International found that violence is a key expulsion factor in El Salvador and Honduras, where levels of violence and an increase in the amount of territory controlled by gangs affect people’s rights to life, physical integrity, education and free movement. The UN Refugee Agency has established that asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle countries fall within a certain risk profile: those persecuted by a gang due to the gang’s perception that they do not comply with the gang’s authority; persons working or involved in activities susceptible to extortion; victims and witnesses of crimes committed by gangs or members of the security forces; children and youth from areas where gangs operate; women and girls in areas where gangs operate. All could qualify as refugees.

Without the resources to leave with her husband, Natalia and Tomás fled their home to go into hiding in other cities in El Salvador. Even in hiding, people she suspected of being affiliated with the gangs tried to track her down. In a country the size equivalent of Massachusetts, with rampant impunity, Natalia worried that she would never be able to continue to hide from the gangs, so she fled El Salvador in November 2015 to join her husband in the United States. Luis received a positive credible fear interview and was paroled into the United States when he fled El Salvador in 2014. Despite Luis’ success, and making their claim for asylum on the exact same set of facts, Natalia and Tomás received a negative determination by the asylum officer and were detained pending deportation. In May, after more than 17 months in immigration detention, the US immigration agency did not allow Natalia and Tomás, who were also traumatized and suffering from several health issues, considered on Luis’ asylum case. Instead, the agency charted a plane and deported mother and son with six other mothers and children to El Salvador.

A recent Reuters investigation analyzing the case of two Honduran women who sought asylum in the United States, reiterates what advocates have been denouncing for years, that a person’s chance to be granted asylum and stay in the United States depends largely on who hears the case, and where it is heard, and if they have legal representation. The investigation found that an immigrant was still four times as likely to be granted asylum by a judge in San Francisco than by one in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Now, that is a dysfunctional system!

International law, including as established in treaties the U.S. has ratified, firmly prohibits discrimination, and the United States’ obligations under those treaties apply to citizens and non-citizens alike. Equating asylum seekers to criminals is false and disingenuous.

This fall, the U.S. Senate should reject any bills that criminalize people seeking protection in this country and that would allow for the destruction of the U.S. asylum protection system.

*All names have been changed to protect their identities.

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