Running for one’s life is not a tidy, well-charted path.
I have heard countless stories of desperate escapes in search of safety in my work as an immigration attorney. Families have taken the first bus out of town in a shocked, zombie-like daze after being threatened at gunpoint. They have climbed out of windows carrying nothing while their persecutors debated how to kill them in the next room. They have called in every favor they have ever been owed to get on whatever plane they could as fast as possible. Asylum seekers, by definition, are people fleeing danger.
As a result of this urgency, families hoping to find safety in the U.S. often are forced to travel through intermediary countries where they have no immigration status, have no ties and are not safe. To address this, immigration law has long recognized that it is wrong for the U.S. to reject asylum applications just because someone passed through another country on their way to safety.
But this administration has published a new rule to do exactly that. The rule denies asylum to most families that travel through another country, such as Mexico, while fleeing to the U.S. In effect, it withholds asylum protections from the vast majority of families in genuine danger.
The development also is a deeply unsettling affront to the rule of law as an attempt to eviscerate asylum statute through hasty rulemaking without congressional approval. The right to seek protection from persecution has been a pillar of domestic and international law for more than sixty years, and this is a backdoor effort to sidestep normal legal processes.
This is a drastic and unnecessary proposal that will be met with a wave of legal challenges. The change also will not stop desperate families from seeking refuge, but it could drive them into the exploitative arms of human traffickers and criminal cartels.
Legal provisions already allow the U.S. to deny asylum to people who have been firmly resettled through a grant of status in a third country. But categorically turning people away just because the path of their escape took them through another country does not appropriately ensure the safety of refugees.
Let us be clear, this rule is about Mexico. With the U.S. making it increasingly difficult to legally enter the land of the free, asylum seekers from all around the world are forced into the last remaining route. They travel to South or Central America and then make the journey north. The current administration wants to ensure that these families never get past Mexico.
For some, Mexico might mean safety. For many, it is not a viable option.
Asylum seekers are incredibly vulnerable and often relegated to some of the most dangerous regions of Mexico. In recent years, efforts by the U.S. to shut the border have exacerbated what was once a difficult but manageable situation, resulting in burgeoning refugee camps at the border, a phenomenon once unknown to the continent.
At the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I practice, we impact the lives of 33,936 immigrants every year. Our clients have been kidnapped, extorted by government officials, starved, separated from their families, sexually abused, detained, stalked by their persecutors, robbed and physically assaulted while traveling through Mexico. These are not outliers. These are the stories that my colleagues and I hear again and again, most heart-breakingly from children.
Also, one of the most concerning aspects of the policy is the risk that intermediary countries will deport asylum seekers back to the violence they fled, sometimes with fatal results.
Mexico deported 25,069 Central Americans alone, including 3,289 children, in just the first two months of 2019—double the number expelled during the same period last year. As Mexico feels the rising burden of the refugee crisis due to the U.S. shirking its humanitarian obligations, an already problematic system is showing signs of buckling under the strain.
What the Trump administration is now doing is both morally and legally wrong. Of the many mismanaged efforts to reshape our immigration system, this rule will stand out in our country’s history as a moment of great shame.
Elizabeth Gibson is a senior attorney with the Immigrant Protection Unit of the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and sits on the steering committee of the International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative.