“O.K., muchacho. Vas a estar muy bien.” The first words Carlos Hidalgo heard when he reached the U.S.-Mexico border were that he was “going to be alright.” The border patrol agent – a tall, Caucasian man – reassuringly patted him on his shoulder. In the eyes of 11-year-old Carlos, he looked like Captain America.
He and his six-year-old brother, two-year-old baby sister and mother had fled violence in their home country of El Salvador and were claiming political asylum. After an arduous three-week journey, he was being welcomed into a foreign land by a stranger.
This was 1981. Today, in 2018, people arriving at the U.S. border face a drastically different reception.
Members of the migrant caravan from Central America – a group of women, men and children fleeing violence and persecution largely from Honduras – have finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border after a long and politically charged journey.
With the help of the advocacy organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, they organized en masse as a way to protect themselves from the perils of traveling alone and to shed light on their struggle as migrants.
As soon as mainstream media outlets began to cover their trek, President Donald Trump, through a series of tweets, attacked the caravan, and soon after ordered the deployment of National Guard troops to the border.
This week, as the remaining members of the caravan neared, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen released a statement on their imminent arrival, writing that “a sovereign nation that cannot – or worse, chooses not – to defend its borders will soon cease to be a sovereign nation.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also issued a statement, saying, “Let today’s message be clear: Our nation has the most generous immigration system in the world, but this is a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”
The Trump administration has pulled out all of its scare tactics to portray the caravan as menacing and the U.S. border as a battleground. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s also be clear: The real threat is not the migrant caravan or any other individual wielding their right to seek asylum. The real threat is the U.S. government and how it is shamelessly using the migrant caravan as a scapegoat to militarize the border and eliminate protections for immigrants.
It is an absolute waste of taxpayer dollars to be sending the National Guard to respond to people fleeing persecution and torture abroad. Instead, we should be greeting them with compassion and support.
The Refugee Act of 1980, modeled after the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol and passed as a response to the thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals seeking refuge in the U.S., gave asylum seekers a new opportunity and a chance at a new life.
What many people don’t realize is that one of the only legal ways of claiming asylum in the U.S. is by presenting oneself at a point of entry, like a border.
But the reality they face is often bleak. Under President Bill Clinton in 1996, the U.S. government dramatically changed its immigration policies when it passed a law requiring Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to immediately detain all people who claim asylum at the border.
People seeking asylum are forced to languish in immigration detention and endure unbearable conditions, including being sexually assaulted, pepper sprayed, beaten and being subjected to substandard medical care that leads to miscarriages and even death.
Even Carlos, who was first welcomed into the U.S., would later be detained at the notorious Adelanto Detention Facility in Southern California after serving time for a nonviolent crime.
While detained under these conditions, asylum seekers also have to convince the government in what is known as “credible fear interviews” that their lives are at risk for one of the reasons mentioned in international refugee law. This becomes extremely difficult for people in immigration detention because they often do not have access to an attorney, the internet to gather supporting country conditions or family who can help them gather the documents necessary to prove they are fleeing persecution.
The Trump administration, with its openly aggressive agenda toward immigrants as a whole, is taking an even harder line against asylum seekers. Under the Obama administration, it was more common for asylum seekers to be paroled soon after crossing the border. Now, under Trump, they have to demonstrate “urgent humanitarian reasons or a significant public benefit” for why they should be released.
We have evidence to prove this shift: Just a few months after Trump came into office, my organization Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC) documented 805 cases at 37 immigration detention facilities of individuals who were arbitrarily denied parole or bond between January 20, 2017, and May 2017.
Many of those denied parole were given a cursory review of their case, at best, and many received no explanation for why they were denied, even after attorneys tried to obtain more information from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This not only violates domestic and international law – it is also unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with other advocacy groups, is suing the government over the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, and Human Rights Watch is suing to obtain more information about the widespread pattern of border agents not following the law when processing asylum seekers by either dismissing their cases or intimidating them. The administration is also essentially authorizing the cruel practice of separating families at the border, which has prompted a class-action lawsuit from the ACLU.
Claiming asylum at the border is perfectly legal. What the government is doing to asylum seekers is not.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.