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July 2019, Volume 25, Number 3

Central Americans, Politics

Over 144,000 migrants were apprehended just inside the Mexico-US border in May 2019, including 58,000 Central American parents with children and 8,900 children traveling alone. Another 109,000 migrants were apprehended in April 2019. Some 107,212 families were arrested just inside the Mexico-US border during the 12 months of FY18.

Smugglers in Guatemala and Honduras are urging people to leave for the US before President Trump builds a wall or closes the border. Smugglers assure their clients that, after crossing the US border illegally with children, they will be released to relatives and friends and allowed to live and work in the US legally for the several years required to process their applications. If recognized as refugees, they may remain in the US as immigrants.

Smugglers typically charge $5,000 to move families through Mexico and into the US, where they seek out Border Patrol agents to apply for asylum. Solo adults seeking to elude the Border Patrol are charged $10,000. The journey through Mexico normally takes five days. Smugglers say that half of the migrant-paid fee is used to pay off police and gangs in Mexico.

Once inside the US, Central American families are apprehended or turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, who finger print and register them. Those who ask for asylum must pass a credible fear test, which means they must convince a USCIS officer that they face a "significant possibility" of persecution in their home country. About three-fourths of applicants pass the credible fear test.

The next step is to apply for asylum and explain to an immigration judge why the applicant faces a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group at home in order to be recognized as a refugee and allowed to settle in the US.

Most asylum applications are rejected: an eighth of those who pass credible fear tests are recognized as refugees by immigration judges. However, with a backlog of over 875,000 cases in mid-2019, there is a two-year wait between applying for asylum and being ordered by a judge to leave the US. Many applicants use this time to work in the US, and less than 10 percent leave the US when they are ordered deported.

A few Central Americans are seeking asylum in Europe instead of Mexico or the US. Some 7,800 Central Americans applied for asylum in Europe in 2018, often those with relatives already in a European country that does not require a visa, with Spain often the preferred entry point. Getting to Europe legally can be cheaper, $2,000, than paying a smuggler to take a migrant through Mexico to the US, which can cost $5,000 for those not in caravans.

Spain does not recognize gang violence at home as a reason to grant asylum, but backlogs permit asylum seekers in Spain to work legally for several years. Belgium grants asylum to gang victims unable to receive protection from their own governments, prompting more Central Americans to apply for asylum in Belgium.

Reactions. The Trump Administration responded to the influx of Central Americans in several ways. First, DHS expanded the Migrant Protection Protocol or Remain in Mexico program that requires some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearing before a US immigration judge. The US limits how many migrants may apply for asylum each day at ports of entry, a process called metering. About 1,000 foreigners a month who applied for asylum in 2019 were returned to Mexico to await hearings before immigration judges.

Federal courts have allowed this stay-in-Mexico program to continue despite suits alleging that Mexico is not safe for asylum applicants. The union representing USCIS asylum officers, Local 1924 of the American Federation of Government Employees, complained that the Migrant Protection Protocol violates US law and international obligations.

Second, the US in March 2019 suspended aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras because, according to Trump, these governments did not deter the outmigration of migrants. The US provided $500 million to the three Northern Triangle countries in 2017, a year in which they received almost $17 billion in remittances from migrants.

Third, President Trump threatened to close all or some legal ports of entry along the Mexico-US border to prevent Central Americans from arriving and seeking asylum. Mexico-US two-way trade was $616 billion in 2017, and 500,000 workers, tourists and shoppers cross daily, prompting businesses to warn of the economic consequences of closing the border.

Trump in April 2019 said that the US was "full" and could not accommodate more asylum seekers. Trump asked DHS for options to discourage Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the US, including giving parents who arrive with children a choice between being separated from their children while they are detained to wait for their asylum hearing or agreeing to be jailed with their children.

Attorney General William Barr in April 2019 told immigration judges not to release solo adult asylum applicants who are apprehended by Border Patrol agents on bail after they pass credible fear tests. Barr said that foreigners who apply for asylum at ports of entry may still be released on bail, as can families and solo children who are apprehended.

Barr in May 2019 criticized federal district judges who issue nationwide injunctions blocking Trump Administration policies, saying that such actions thrust the federal judiciary into the political process. Nationwide injunctions began during President Obama's second term, as Republican attorney generals in Texas and other states sought them to block Obama Administration actions. Democratic attorney generals in California and other states have won about one nationwide injunction a month to block Trump actions, including preserving DACA and continuing TPS for particular groups.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill in May 2019 to increase the number of days migrants who apply for asylum after entering the US illegally can be detained from 20 to 100, to allow the US to send unaccompanied minors back to Central America (as with Mexican youth), and to hire 500 more immigration judges. Representative Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced HR 517 to toughen the credible-fear standard to "more probable than not."

Residents of towns on the Guatemalan-Mexican border in Chiapas complained in April 2019 that the Mexican government's welcoming polices were overwhelming their limited resources. President Lopez Obrador, who took office in December 2018, promised to end the Mexican government's enforcement first approach to managing the flow of Central Americans by allowing migrants to apply for 12-month work visas.

President Trump in April 2019 ordered DHS to develop regulations within 90 days to charge fees to apply for asylum and work permits and to clear asylum cases within 180 days of filing. Congress approved $4.6 billion in supplemental aid to deal with overcrowded migrant detention centers along the Mexico-US border. Two-thirds of the funds will go to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Politics. President Trump in May 2019 proposed changes developed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the legal immigration system that would introduce a Canadian-style point system to select some immigrants based on their education, English-language ability and US job offers. To keep the number of immigrants from rising beyond the current 1.1 million a year, the Kushner plan would eliminate the diversity visa lottery and immigrant visas for adult brothers and sisters of US citizens.

Trump appears to be making immigration central to his bid for re-election in 2020, asserting during a June 2019 kickoff rally that Democrats are in favor of open borders.

Most Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination support the legalization of unauthorized foreigners in the US, but they are more ambivalent about more enforcement to reduce illegal immigration and guest workers, the two other legs of the comprehensive immigration reform bills approved by the Senate in 2006 and 2013. Both Senate bills had bipartisan support, but these bills were not taken up by the House.

Ex-San Antonio mayor Julian Castro in April 2019 proposed repealing Title 8, Section 1325 of US law that makes illegal entry a criminal offense punishable by a fine and up to six months in prison. Castro wants illegal entry to be a civil offense, which means that foreigners who are apprehended could be deported without penalty. Most of those deported are unable to get a visa to return to the US legally.

Illegal entry has been a federal misdemeanor since 1929, but arriving legally and overstaying a tourist visa is a civil violation.

Most Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination support making illegal entry a civil offense and not aggressively trying to detect and remove unauthorized foreigners who have not committed US crimes, which would effectively allow non-criminal unauthorized foreigners to enter and stay in the US. Most favor providing health insurance to poor unauthorized foreigners. Republicans say that repealing Section 1325, ending interior enforcement, and providing health insurance is a call for open borders.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in July 2019 proposed improving the facilities used to hold apprehended migrants and restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by President Obama in 2012 that protects 700,000 unauthorized foreigners brought to the US as children. President Trump cancelled DACA in 2017; DACA's fate will be determined by the Supreme Court in 2019-20.

The House in June 2019 approved the Dream and Promise Act by a vote of 237-187 to provide a three-step path to US citizenship for 700,000 unauthorized foreigners with DACA status and 1.6 million who are eligible but did not apply, as well as 300,000 foreigners with Temporary Protected Status. The bill is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.

Wall. The wall continues to generate lawsuits and controversy. A federal judge in June 2019 dismissed a suit filed by House Democrats seeking to block Trump from using funds not appropriated by Congress to build a wall on the Mexico-US border; another judge in May 2019 issued an injunction that blocks Trump from transferring funds from other agencies to build the wall.

A California judge in June 2019 blocked Trump from moving $2.5 billion from DOD counter-drug programs to build the wall. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2019 upheld this judge's ruling in a 2-1 decision.

Congress appropriated $1.4 billion for the wall, but Trump demanded $5.7 billion, and obtained additional money for the wall by declaring a national emergency and moving $601 million from the Treasury's forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from Department of Defense funds allocated to counter-drug activity and $3.6 billion from Department of Defense capital projects to build the wall.

Population. Immigration accounted for 48 percent of US population growth in 2018. In 298 of the 3,142 US counties and in 14 states, immigration contributed more than natural increase to population growth. Fertility fell during and after the 2008-09 recession, while immigration continued at over a million a year.

Between 2010 and 2018, over 40 percent of immigrants were from Asia, compared with 20 percent from Mexico.

The Supreme Court ruled in June 2019 that the Trump Administration failed to justify plans to ask respondents about their citizenship on the 2020 census; the last time all people were asked about their citizenship in the census was in 1950. President Trump said that citizenship information was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965; critics who sued to prevent the census from asking about citizenship said that asking about citizenship would reduce responses.

The government estimated that 6.5 million of the expected 330 million US residents would not respond to the census if they were asked about their citizenship. The UN recommends asking about citizenship, and most censuses worldwide do so. The Trump Administration first announced that it would not ask all respondents their citizenship in 2020, but President Trump then tweeted that the citizenship question would be asked. There are about 22 million non-US citizens living in the US.

Census data are used to distribute $675 billion in federal funds. Conducting the census in 2010 cost $90 per housing unit in 2019 dollars. In April 2020, the census takers who conduct in-person interviews plan to use apps on smartphones to record data.