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Why Not Central Americans? The Humanitarian Crisis in Our Own Backyard

Posted April 26, 2016 • Filed Under Uncategorized

During my three months as an intern at NewBridges I’ve had a fair range of tasks. I’ve helped clients write resumes, apply for jobs, and fill out financial aid applications for the hospital. I’ve made copies of passports and translated birth certificates to help my supervisor complete immigration paperwork.

Though I do some case management work, I’ve been trying to learn more about the immigration side of our agency. Before working at NewBridges I knew some small details of immigration policy. I had read in articles the definition of a refugee and a few types of immigration status, but not much outside of that.

What is a refugee?

What I’ve discovered through hearing the stories of immigrants and refugees is that there are varied levels of help available for people with different types of immigration status. A refugee is an immigrant who has been recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees as a person who has been “forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence” and who “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Refugees who are placed in Harrisonburg receive comprehensive resettlement services from Church World Services Refugee Resettlement office and have legal immigration as a refugee. Within one year, a refugee in the U.S. is able to apply to become a legal permanent resident. In our city these refugees come from Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries around the world.

Central Americans in Harrisonburg

In addition to the population of refugees in Harrisonburg, a larger international group is our Hispanic population. Harrisonburg has the third highest percentage of Hispanic persons of cities in Virginia. The Hispanic population grew from 15.7% in 2010 to 19% in 2014 according to the Weldon Cooper Demographics Research Group. Although we know the portion of the population that is Hispanic, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of our Hispanic neighbors in Harrisonburg. The city’s census data does not report on nationality, and although Harrisonburg City Public Schools provides information about the countries of origin of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, it doesn’t capture the makeup of the Harrisonburg population. Students born in a Spanish-speaking country make up about 23-24% of LEP students. However, Spanish is the first language of 74% of LEP students, meaning that there are students in the LEP program who are born in the U.S. but whose parents were likely born in a Spanish-speaking country.

While it’s difficult to accurately describe countries of origin for Hispanic members of the community, there are numbers available for the Central American population of the U.S. The Migration Policy Institute says that “From 1980 to 2013, the size of the Central American immigrant population grew nine-fold from 354,000 to 3.2 million.” Central America is comprised of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The rate at which citizens of those countries have migrated to the U.S. throughout history has changed based upon economic migrants, political unrest, war, poverty, and other factors. The current trend in migration is that “Immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and more recently, Honduras accounted for 90 percent of the total growth between 1980 and 2013…” What is it that makes these countries such high sources of U.S. immigration? This question sparks a complex answer, one that is derived from a history of unstable political systems heavily influenced by U.S. involvement. The violence in these countries has been so high that Honduras was the country with the highest per-capita murder rate in the world for many years. Last year it was surpassed by El Salvador. Guatemala also holds a place in the top five and is plagued by similar problems.

Violence in Central America

After learning about this history of violence and instability in Central America, I was curious. We have refugees living in Harrisonburg who flee civil war, racial persecution, and other conditions in the Middle East, Eastern Africa, and other regions of Asia and Africa. They have been through great traumas and long journeys to arrive in the U.S. as refugees, but have been given an opportunity for a new life here. After reading about Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, it seems to me that there is a humanitarian crisis that is not being addressed. The violence has been documented; there are a number of articles covering the new murder capital of the world and the violence among these countries has been investigated and reported in many facets by NPR Latino. All of this information led me to ask: How many refugees from Central America are living in the United States? The answer is none. From looking at data for refugees’ countries of origin, I found that the U.S. did not accept refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras in the years 2012-2014 for which data is available. I wanted to know why the U.S. had not accepted any refugees from these countries. The answer is unclear.

Many refugees flee their country of origin, resettle in refugee camps within a nearby country, and then apply for refugee status. After years of U.N. background checks and further checks for the specific country where they will be resettled, a person granted refugee status will be settled in a new country. Some Central Americans are seeking asylum within other countries in Latin America, but many are coming directly to the U.S. because poverty is so widespread within Latin America. When they land on U.S. soil, these migrants might be able enter the U.S. without being examined, but others are detained and paroled, or detained and released with a pending asylum case. But what is asylum, and how is it different from being a refugee?

Asylum and Why It Isn’t Enough

To have asylum status is similar to being a refugee. Asylum status is “a form of protection available to people who meet the definition of refugee, are already in the United States, [and] are seeking admission at a port of entry.” The key difference is that refugee status is determined by the United Nations and refugees are assigned a resettlement location, whereas applicants for asylum enter the U.S. (often illegally) in hopes of receiving asylum. These asylum applicants then have one year to prove their case in a U.S. court of law.

While this may seem like a sound alternative to refugee status, it is more complex than it sounds. Persons applying for asylum must attempt to provide proof of the danger that they have faced. Newspaper articles about homicides, death threats, demands for extortion, and other such documents can be gathered to make a case. These documents may not always be a part of the applicant’s experience, and a lack of evidence is likely to lead to denial of asylum status. An additional obstacle is that not all persons awaiting their court date are given permission to work, forcing them to work under false documentation or rely on the charity of friends and family.

According to the Annual Flow Report from the Office of Immigration Statistics, 25,199 applicants were granted asylum status in 2013. A report from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees states that “With an estimated 83,400 asylum applications, the United States of America was the largest single recipient of new asylum claims among the 44 industrialized countries for the seventh consecutive year.” These figures demonstrate that only 30% of applicants are granted asylum status. All persons determined ineligible for asylum are then placed in removal proceedings, more commonly known as deportation. Even for those immigrants granted asylum status, they are receiving a considerably lower level of support than refugees. Refugees are assisted with their first months of housing, furnishings for the home, health screenings, enrollment in school, job placement services, cultural orientation, and more. Asylees receive none of these resettlement services and face a more complex process for receiving work authorization. Asylum requires an extensive process before residency, whereas refugees can receive residency within a year.

The U.S. processed thousands of refugees in 2014 from Iraq, Burma, Somalia, Bhutan and many other countries. At the same time, there are Central Americans facing war-like conditions whose only option is illegal entry to the U.S. and the rocky and risky path to asylum. I believe that we have to ask ourselves as a nation how we are deciding which people are worthy of the opportunity for a new life. How do we justify refusing a legal pathway into the United States to our neighbors while admitting refugees from all other regions of the world?

About the author: Allison Crenshaw is a senior social work student at James Madison University. She is completing her field practicum with NewBridges and spends her time there working on case management and participating in community organizing. Allison enjoys working with youth and is passionate about immigration reform in the U.S. and our efforts as a society to welcome our immigrant and refugee neighbors. She also enjoys salsa dancing, eating unreasonable amounts of chocolate, and stealing really nice pens from her coworkers.