The Violence in Our Backyard

What’s the reality behind the rhetoric on the migrant caravan and the asylum crisis? We can do better.

Five Figures to Consider

225,000 Northern Triangle migrants apprehended at the border in 2016
5,611 Northern Triangle migrants granted asylum in 2016
29% proposed reduction in Central American aid in Trump Administration 2019 budget
51% decline in murder and extortion rates in Central American neighborhoods benefitting from U.S.-funded community based interventions
$27 billion in U.S. goods imported by Northern Triangle countries in 2017

Between 2015 and 2018, the U.S. spent $2.6 billion on foreign assistance to Central America. Still, the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the deadliest places on earth. Governments are weak, and armed gangs operate with impunity. Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, under pressure from law enforcement at home, have relocated operations into the Northern Triangle, teaming up with gangs, including MS-13 and M-18, which were brought to Central America by former prisoners deported from the U.S. Today 90% of cocaine bound for the U.S. passes through the region, and trafficked U.S. firearms make the environment more lethal. Murder, extortion, kidnapping and rape are common, and a staggering 95% of crimes go unpunished. These are the conditions driving a 2,249% increase in migration from the area, including the most recent migrant caravan.  What’s the U.S. response? Miles of razor wire, thousands of soldiers, restrictions on asylum applicants and a threat to eliminate aid.

The arrival of the most recent caravan at the U.S. border is hardly a crisis meriting the deployment of 5,000 soldiers at an estimated cost of $42 million to $110 million. Last year the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended an average of 1,087 migrants a day at the southwest border for a total of 396,579 apprehensions. A caravan of 7,000 people is the equivalent of a week’s work. Furthermore, apprehensions in 2018 are down 76% from the peak of 1.6 million in 2000, while at the same time Border Patrol staffing has doubled.

While the caravan will not overwhelm Border Patrol, it will likely add to the disfunction of our current asylum system. As of January 2018, the U.S. had a backlog of 311,000 asylum cases. That backlog creates opportunities for individuals making opportunistic and abusive claims. To understand, here’s a simple primer on the asylum process. There are two types of asylum – affirmative and defensive. A person filing for affirmative asylum voluntarily makes an application to an asylum officer within a year of arriving in the country. A person filing for defensive asylum makes an application in response to an apprehension after an illegal border crossing or in response to an order of deportation. According to the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. should grant asylum to those who face persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Fearing violence or being a victim of violence is not enough in and of itself. Between 2011 and 2016 asylum claims by Northern Triangle applicants were granted at rates of 17.1% (El Salvador), 19.7% (Honduras) and 22.8% (Guatemala). In 2016, just 5,611 migrants from the Northern Triangle were offered asylum. That’s less than 3% of the number apprehended crossing the border that year.

So if asylum is so difficult to obtain, why did President Trump issue a proclamation blocking immigrants crossing the southern border from applying for asylum outside of official entry points? Because the act of applying for defensive asylum can enable someone to escape deportation following an apprehension and to remain in the U.S. illegally. How? It is easy to pass the initial “credible fear” screening with an asylum officer, as many as 90% of migrants do. Most are then released into the U.S. Some then apply for asylum. Some never do. Those who apply and don’t receive a hearing within six months are given work permits. Those who apply and are denied asylum (about 80% of Northern Triangle applicants) are deported. See the incentives? Applying raises the likelihood that you will be sent back into the bloody mess from which you escaped. Better to pass the credible fear test, find a job and a place to live and try not to attract the attention of ICE.

What’s the solution that maintains the integrity of the asylum process and meets the Refugee Act directive to offer asylum to persecuted people? Drastically shortening the time between the credible fear screening, the asylum hearing and removal when a claim is denied. Such reforms have been implemented before. In 1995 the Clinton Administration tackled an asylum backlog by adding immigration judges and asylum officers, establishing deadlines, processing new claims first to quickly weed out false ones, extending the wait time required to obtain a work permit and immediately deporting applicants whose claims were denied. According to David A. Martin, former general counsel to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, those 1995 reforms eliminated the backlog and discouraged opportunistic applicants, resulting  in a reduction in asylum claims. This year the Trump Administration resumed the practice of processing new claims first, which is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, we should increase our spending on proven crime and violence prevention programs in the Northern Triangle. Making the area safer would reduce the outflow of migrants and protect a significant market for U.S. trade. In 2017 Northern Triangle countries imported $27 billion worth of goods from the U.S. Our current aid budget to the region is less than we spend in remote countries including Afghanistan, Jordan, Nigeria and Kenya. While recent spending has focused on law enforcement, there is evidence that community-based programs significantly reduce violence and improve safety. Research by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project found that USAID’s community-based programs produced a 51% decline in murder and extortion rates in the Central American neighborhoods in which they operated. Such programs are inexpensive relative to armed services deployment, migrant detention, border wall construction and deportation expenses, but they can’t be achieved with the 29% cut in aid to Central America that the Trump Administration recommends in its 2019 budget. That recommendation would reduce aid from a high of $754 million in 2016 to just $436 million in 2019.

NGOs are trying to fill the gap. In El Salvador, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) provides shelter, safety services and short-term cash assistance to returned deportees, a group that often becomes a target for violence because they are assumed to have money earned in the U.S. The IRC also connects vulnerable populations with available local services through CuéntaNos, a digital information platform. In Guatemala and Honduras, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) supports unaccompanied children returning from the U.S. due to deportation or voluntary return. And in Honduras, the Norwegian Refugee Council works with students and schools to strengthen communities.  

A New York Times documentary following Northern Triangle teens attempting to cross the U.S. border gives a close-up look at the violence these migrants are fleeing. The risk of being assaulted on the journey or turned back at the border is small in comparison. Helping to make Northern Triangle communities safe is worth the cost for us and for them.


American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Immigration Studies, Congressional Research Service, Council on Foreign Relations, Department of Homeland Security, The Dialogue, Igarape Institute, The Marshall Project, Migration Policy Institute, TRAC Immigration, The Woodrow Wilson Center, U.N. Refugee Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of State, Vanderbilt University Latin American Public Opinion Project, Washington Office on Latin America