The Knock on Our Door
This week the United States heard a knock on our door and we are once again faced with the question of whether or not to help our neighbors.
The number of those knocking, having walked to South Texas form Honduras, some 2,500 miles, is now estimated at more than 7,000 people. They flee violence of a kind that even the most vulnerable American can’t understand. When we hear “gang violence,” many Americans will picture rap videos or movie scenes of drive-bys. Gang violence in Honduras means something else entirely. It means that the gang is entitled to your paycheck—however meager it may be. Refusal to pay is a death sentence for you and your children. Agreeing to pay means you can’t feed your children. Gang violence means if your preteen daughter catches the eye of a gang member and you refuse to give her to him you put your whole family, including the younger children, at risk of death. Gang violence means that if your husband refuses to do something for the gang, they will come after you and your children to punish him. The masses at the southern U.S. border are begging us for safety from these situations. They are knocking on our door and we are haggling over the price of sheltering them. They are seeking asylum and we are obligated both morally and legally to offer it to them.
Asylum criteria is simple, on the face of it. Someone who is already in the United States can request asylum (that is, to stay in the U.S.) if they are seeking protection because they fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group if they return home. The first three are fairly self-explanatory but political opinion and membership in a social group can be more broadly used.
Political opinion can be what we commonly think of: disagreeing with the federal government. But in many countries the federal government is not the only political danger. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras gangs run the local communities, often with the assistance of the police. People are victimized by gangs in many ways including extortion and recruiting. If someone refuses to cooperate with the gangs either by refusing to pay extortion money or refusing to work for the gangs, this can be framed as anti-gang political opinion. Many of the women I worked with in the South Texas Family Residential Center were claiming asylum based on anti-gang political opinion.
Membership in a particular social group covers groups in which you cannot reasonably change your status. This can include sexual orientation, being transgender or gender fluid, or kinship ties. Kinship ties or membership in a family was another basis for asylum that I frequently saw in Dilley. For example, if a gang is threatening a mother and her child in order to punish her husband, this could be grounds for asylum based on kinship ties. Oddly, being female is not grounds for asylum despite women and girls often experiencing violence because they are female.
Refugee criteria is the same as asylum criteria but applies to people who are in other countries and applying to come to the United States for protection. Asylum applies to those already in the United States or at a port of entry. Let me repeat that: at a port of entry. Every time you hear someone claiming that the immigrants presenting at the border should be going through legal channels, remind them that they were attempting to present at a port of entry, a completely legal channel. Until we have interviewed and assessed each of those presenting to ensure we are not sending someone home who has a legitimate asylum claim (as many, if not most of them will have) we cannot turn them away.
One last note on this knock on our door. I have repeatedly heard people ask why this group isn’t seeking asylum in Mexico as the first country in which they arrive. There is nothing in international law that states people must seek asylum in the first country they come to. That being said, the argument I’ve heard is “the first safe country they come to.” Mexico is not safe for many or most of these immigrants. It might be safe for spring breakers and snow birds but for those fleeing gang violence it is not a safe haven. The gangs that operate most widely in Central America, MS-13 and 18, cross easily into Mexico and have considerable power there. So again, we cannot respond to the knock on our door by telling our neighbors to go next door. We have the largest, safest, most well stocked house on the block and it is our responsibility to open our door to those in need.
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist