Flee Or Die: The Dilemma Central American Refugees Face Seeking Asylum In The U.S.


Throughout the 2016 presidential race, Republican candidate Donald Trump has openly incited anti-immigrant rhetoric by promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico as a means to ban “rapists” and “criminals” from infiltrating the country, if elected president in November. His xenophobic logic—if you can even call it reasoning—does not take into account that many asylum seekers do not fall in either category.

“[Anyone] with even a simple comprehension of the crisis that has befallen Mexico and much of Central America knows that Trump has it exactly backward,” Francisco Goldman writes in The New Yorker. “In fact, the ‘worst people’ are often those who, officially or otherwise, run those countries: that is, corrupt politicians, economic élites, narco cartels, and also the legions of criminals whom those leaders protect via their complicity and impunity.”

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Primarily hailing from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Central American refugees consistently struggle to escape their “lawless infernos” because U.S. law exclusively recognizes cases of political asylum.  “[A] young man who flees forced recruitment into a Mara in El Salvador or Honduras, who will be hunted down and killed for refusing to join, will usually—especially in U.S. courts outside of New York—have his case rejected as a form of asylum-worthy persecution,” Goldman continues.

As a result, many Central Americans are left with no other option but to endure the corrupt environment of their native countries, which is hardly conceivable. “The journey to the U.S., up through Mexico especially, is so notoriously fraught with hardship and extreme danger that most people, especially those with children in tow, would be unwilling to risk it unless they really did feel caught in a ‘flee or die’ situation.”

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Central American Legal Assistance (CALA) attorney Heather Yvonne Axford laments this dilemma, which she sees too often, yet is unable to correct as an immigrant caseworker. “[When] I am breaking the news to one of the many people with urgent reasons to leave and fear of return that their fear doesn’t fit into the asylum box, I feel like a spokeswoman for this set of laws that I don’t even fully agree with and I hate that,” she wrote in an email to Goldman.

Axford and her colleagues believe the definition of political asylum should be expanded within the U.S. court system, considering the Maras are the de facto rulers in countries like El Salvador and Honduras where they have intimidated police and political authorities into working for them.

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The New Yorker also reports that parts of Guatemala remain in similar control while entire Mexican states are practically ruled by notorious cartels like the Zetas. The U.S. government has, according to reports, given the Mexican government at least $86 million dollars to deport Central American migrants, quelling their effort to seek asylum across the border while making more money preying on refugees than dealing drugs.

“The trip here is really, really hard,” Axford added. “But sometimes a judge emphasizes the resolve of a survivor, and says we’re lucky to have them as part of our country, and that’s really healing. There are things to be idealistic about. It’s part of what keeps you in the mix, on the front lines.”