For migrant children seeking asylum in the U.S., location matters

The immigration office in San Francisco has a high rate of approval for Central American migrants seeking asylum. (Credit: Allie_Caulfield/Flickr)

Child migrants fleeing violence in Central America are surging across the U.S.-Mexico border in numbers that will soon rival that of the migrant crisis two summers ago. Now, the Associated Press has highlighted the striking regional differences in the U.S. immigration system that, for minors seeking asylum, can mean a matter of life and death.

According to data obtained by the AP under a Freedom of Information Act request, unaccompanied minors seeking asylum have a drastically higher chance of winning approval in cities like San Francisco, which has an 86 percent approval rating, than in cities like Chicago, which approves just 15 percent of these cases.

The reason is unclear, and disparity among immigration offices is not uncommon for asylum-seekers in general. But the situation is particularly alarming when considering that more than 10,000 unaccompanied children who arrived in the U.S. since May 2014 have applied for asylum. More than 90 percent were Central American.

“The quality of justice should not be like a crapshoot. It shouldn’t be a lottery,” Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, told the AP. “It is not just disappointing – it has life-or-death consequences for these children.”

Gang violence has plagued Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for more than a decade. Children, who are attractive targets for gangs, have been leaving these three countries alone, or with family members, for years.

“Given the conditions in the Northern Triangle countries right now, I think if the law is applied fairly, the majority of cases should make that cut and would make that cut. But that’s obviously not the case,” Musalo said in an interview with Humanosphere.

Under federal law, these children can apply for asylum in one of eight U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regional offices to remain in the country. To win their cases, applicants must meet the definition of refugee in the Immigration and Nationality Act. This definition includes the ability to prove that they have been persecuted, or are in danger of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The latter has increasingly been a source of contention in the law. Some immigration officers will see a child threatened by a gang and say they were targeted because of their social circumstances – a young male in El Salvador with no family protection, for example – but others may not see it that way.

Often, Musalo said, it depends on the culture of the immigration office.

“Does that office see itself in sort of a humanitarian role and value giving the benefit of the doubt? Or do those people in the office see themselves more as gate-keepers, who see the surge of migrants and think, we’ve got to protect, put down the gate?” Musalo told Humanosphere.

Immigration lawyers and activists have offered a variety of reasons for the regional differences. Asylum officers are expected to make their decisions in line with federal court rulings on immigration, and the appeals courts on the West Coast, such as the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, tend to be more liberal than the 5th and 11th Circuits in the South.

Another factor is that California started funding representation for unaccompanied minors in late 2014, so success rates for minors in that state could be inflated.

Drawing from the AP’s analysis, the process is also relatively slow: out of the 10,000 migrants who applied for asylum since May 2014, asylum officers have only rendered decisions for around 5,800. And between the unabating violence in Central America and Donald Trump’s talk of building a wall, experts expect the flow of migration to continue, with a significant summer surge before the presidential election in November.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com