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Breaking Down What’s Currently Happening at the US-Mexico Border

America has been wringing its hands over how to approach immigration for years. Since President Trump came into office, immigration has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds and will probably be the number one topic at your dreaded Thanksgiving political debate. The news cycle has been dominated by reports on ICE raids, the separation of families, the conditions in detention centers and lets not forget, how that border wall is coming along. Trump ran his campaign on the promise to implement tough immigration laws and bring down the number of illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. today. To say the least, he has followed through on his promises to reduce border crossings. 

Arrests of migrant families and unaccompanied children at the US-Mexico border have reached record highs over the past year due to a surge in asylum seekers – totaling nearly 1 million. This year, US Border Patrol apprehended 473,682 family members, up from 107,212 in 2018, representing a 342% yearly increase. With this many arrests, detention centers conditions are worsening. A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security indicated dangerous overcrowding in facilities with limited access to showers and clean clothing, resulting in detainees wearing soiled clothes for up to weeks. 

Hold Up, What is an Asylum Seeker? 

Asylum seekers are individuals seeking refugee in a host nation from violence or persecution at home. But, it is a temporary status: first, you apply for asylum, the government then reviews your application and if you get the stamp of approval, only then are you considered a refugee. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, requiring all members of the UN to allow those who fear persecution to apply for protection. 

There are two types of asylum: First is affirmative asylum, which applies to individuals who sought asylum through a legal port of entry. Second, there is defensive asylum, where people who crossed the border illegally are caught and then apply for asylum status while remaining in the U.S. Sounds pretty easy right? Well, no, considering that there is a backlog of approximately 800,000 cases, the process of obtaining asylum status can now take up to 4 years. Consequently with the dramatic surge in migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, it looks as though this process could take even longer. 

What is Causing the Surge? 

Many migrants are fleeing the high levels of poverty and violence, lack of economic opportunity and crippling government corruption in their home countries. Most asylum seekers come from an area called the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These nations have endured decades of political instability and civil war planting the seeds for them to be some of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world for a country not at war. Both Guatemala and Honduras have 60% of their population living below the poverty line. The gravity of these living conditions are unimaginable: so it makes sense that people are leaving in search of better lives. 

Policy Changes: 

Considering the seriousness of this humanitarian crisis, the US chose to add the icing on the cake, with the implementation of a series of restrictive policies preventing migrants from legally seeking asylum. One of the most controversial being the “Zero Tolerance” on Immigration Policy. This policy states that anyone who crosses the southern border illegally would be referred for criminal prosecution, and as a result, has caused family separation. When a family is found to be crossing illegally, the parents are sent to jail, leaving the child to be put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, away from their parents. Although the number of children who have been separated from their parents is still unknown, an internal watchdog report identified that more than 5,500 children had been separated from their parents in 2017. 

Another major policy change came in July of this year, with a Supreme Court ruling that barred anyone from claiming asylum in the US if they first crossed through another nation on their journey and failed to apply for asylum. This essentially blocks all asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle from gaining entry. Many migrants have also said that applying for asylum in these countries felt like a pointless endeavor, especially considering many of these countries on the route can be just as dangerous as the nation they are fleeing from. 

One of the more consequential policies implemented this year is the Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires those seeking entry into the US to wait in Mexico until their day in court, eliminating the second route to achieving asylum, defensive. In the past, asylum seekers could reside in the US will be waiting to hear back on their status, but with the MPP, these people are being forced to endure dangerous situations in some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities run by the cartels. In the last year, more than 51,000 people have been sent to mexico to await their court dates and in these cities, there have been over 100 cases of rape, kidnapping and violent crimes. People are being forced to live in donated tents in places littered with trash, with no access to showers or bathrooms. The conditions these asylum seekers are enduring to seek entry into the U.S. can be just as violent and perilous as the conditions that they are fleeing from. 

So What Now? 

The prospects for asylum-seekers gaining entry into the US have gone from slim to nearly impossible over the last few years. These restrictive policies are now driving people to consider treacherous and potentially life-threatening ways to cross. This year alone, 341 migrant deaths have been reported at the US-Mexico border. People have been charging across the Rio-Grande and climbing into hot and airless tractor-trailers driven by human smugglers. The number of migrants caught hiding in tractor-trailers along the border has gone up by 40 percent this year, according to the Border Patrol. With no options left, these vulnerable individuals risk being subjected to potential violence, imprisonment and potential death to cross the border. 

Immigration is a complicated issue. People disagree on issues such as how many immigrants should be allowed to come into the US and stay, the prospect of dangerous individuals coming into our country and how immigrants affect job opportunities. So it is about numbers, but we can’t forget that it is also about people. There is currently one of the worst humanitarian crises’ occurring at the border, and it is happening at the hands of the United States. These people have escaped persecution, fled their homes and uprooted their entire lives for safety and security. For these asylum seekers, there is no place left to go. Given the losses and suffering these people have endured, we need to stop looking at immigration through the lense of numbers and start recognizing the real impact this is having on real human lives.

Kate grew up in New Jersey and is currently a student at the George Washington University studying International Affairs. Her dream job is to be a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. You can find her doing yoga or on the beach in New Jersey with a large iced coffee.
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