Photo of Honduran migrants being returned to a country many of them fled from in fear. By Stephen Ferry.
While the news is full of reports about the crisis of migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia arriving in Europe, the plight of Central Americans desperate to escape violence and poverty by fleeing to the U.S., remains an under-told story.
Asylum seekers in Europe frequently face inadequate reception conditions and a fractured system for applying for asylum. And some EU governments – like Hungary – are using fast-track procedures to push those seeking asylum back across their borders before their claims are properly assessed.
But the U.S. has employed a version of such fast-track procedures at its border for a decade. Many asylum seekers who cross our southern border are quickly returned to the places they fled with no chance to tell their story and request protection. That puts people fleeing for their lives at serious risk.
Federal authorities in the U.S. routinely use expedited deportation procedures for most migrants arrested at the border. U.S. law requires Border Patrol officers to refer anyone who expresses fear of going back – no matter the reason – to a longer, private interview with a trained asylum officer. That person's job is to assess whether the migrant has a "credible fear" of harm if they are sent back. If so, the asylum seeker can apply for refugee protection before an immigration judge.
But Human Rights Watch has found that Border Patrol officers regularly fail to follow these procedures.
“The officers don’t pay attention to you," a Honduran man seeking asylum in the U.S. recently told Human Rights Watch. "If you say you are afraid, they say ‘We can’t do anything.’ All they said to me was that if I came back they would give me six months in prison.” The man said that in Honduras he had survived being shot seven times by gang members who also killed his brother-in-law. But when he fled to the U.S., border officials deported him back to Honduras within days. Human Rights Watch representatives found him there in hiding, and spoke with him last year.
Government data obtained by Human Rights Watch via the Freedom of Information Act backs up his account. Of the nearly 15,000 Hondurans placed in fast-track procedures at the border in 2011 and 2012, Border Patrol quickly deported 98 percent and referred only 2 percent for a second-step credible fear assessment by asylum officers. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with many people escaping violent threats from gangs and epidemic levels of violence against women and children. Asylum officers have found that over 90 percent of Honduran families who are interviewed in that second step are found to have "credible fear."
On top of these flawed processes at the border, since last summer the U.S. government has contracted with private prison companies to detain nearly 3,000 children and parents to deport them through these expedited procedures. The Border Patrol generates countersigned, sworn, official government records for the "results" of their border interviews about fear, including with these children.
In one case Human Rights Watch has examined, a baby as young as 11 days old purportedly told an officer he entered the United States "with the intention of going to Dodge City, Kansas to reside and seek employment."
A key lesson of the global migration crisis of recent months is that prosperous countries in particular should be doing all they can to respond to asylum seekers crossing borders in a rational and humane way. For the U.S., it means taking a hard look at, and correcting flawed border screenings, mass detentions including of families, and summary procedures that flatly turn away those in need.
Clara Long is a researcher with the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch who concentrates on immigration issues.