We need to fix our broken asylum system

We need to fix our broken asylum system
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Conjuring images of duct tape and kidnapping, the president offered an insistent call to action about human trafficking at the border. The White House on twitter noted that, “[t]his is an urgent humanitarian issue” and that “[a]nyone who says there is no border crisis needs to talk to victims who have lived it.”

I am an attorney in the anti-trafficking field for over 10 years and the founder of the second law school clinic nationally focused on representing human trafficking victims. I have talked to many victims and my clients have never told me about duct tape. In fact, most of their stories do not involve the border. Instead, many cases involve U.S. citizens who have aged out of foster care and residential programs. Trump’s claim that we should shut down the border to end trafficking is equivalent to shutting down child protective services to protect these victims. It is not only wrong but it exacerbates the root causes of trafficking. 

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Having just returned from Tijuana, I saw a humanitarian crisis, but it is not the one that Trump describes. I traveled with a group of law professors and students to provide legal advice and assistance to refugees applying for asylum. We were confronted with scenes of desperation. Young children, who were sick and lack medical care, waiting with their parents for the chance to apply for asylum.

 

Vulnerable asylum seekers — such as the transgender woman we met — feared that she would face harassment and abuse in Mexico. We watched another female refugee was abused by her partner in broad daylight. She and onlookers did not dare call the Mexican police, for fear that they would be harassed or deported. Without hope and a chance at protection these refugees will increasingly turn to smugglers. They are even more vulnerable to trafficking.

Meanwhile, victims — seeking to leave or to report to law enforcement—are increasingly afraid due to policies under the Trump administration. While immigration benefits —T visas for trafficking victims and U visas for victims of violent crime — exist for victims of trafficking and violent crime, these are increasingly out of reach.

They require cooperation with law enforcement, which can be increasingly challenging in uncertain times such as these. Immigration & Customs Enforcement has repeatedly made statements that they cannot assure victims who step forward that they will have protection. In addition, the Trump administration has made it more challenging for victims to obtain such immigration benefits. Under a new policy announced this summer, if victims apply for benefits and are denied, they likely will be placed in deportation proceedings. Additionally, applications for these benefits are now taking many months if not years. Thus, victims face impossible choices.

The president cites compelling statistics to bolster his claims about human trafficking. He notes that 1,588 trafficking arrests occurred last fiscal year with 1,543 for sex trafficking. This is indeed true. What it fails to note is that according to a study in 2015, 93.9 percent of the defendants were U.S. citizens. Also, while trafficking does occur along the border, it also occurs in almost all jurisdictions of our country. For example, while Texas was a leader in trafficking prosecutions, it was joined by jurisdictions in Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

The President is right to focus on duct tape. While rarely a tool of traffickers, it is needed to fix our broken asylum system. This administration’s policies have prevented vulnerable asylum seekers from presenting themselves at the border and having their asylum claims expeditiously processed.

Moreover, in March 7, 2018, then-attorney general Sessions issued the decision in Matter of A-B- to severely circumscribe the ability to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence, gang-based violence and other categories. This decision has been challenged by the ACLU and recently resulted in a federal court injunction. Such short-term fixes are helpful but insufficient. Refugees at the border and victims of trafficking must have legally viable avenues to come forward and present their claims. Allowing them to step out of the shadows is the only route forward to combat trafficking.

Julie Dahlstrom is a clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Law and the director of the BU Law Immigrants Rights and Human Trafficking program.