For migrants in the caravan at the US-Mexico border, data show slim odds of asylum

A long journey ahead.
A long journey ahead.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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After a grueling 2,000-mile (3,200-km) trek, a group of Central American asylum-seekers have finally made it to the US border. Now dozens within the group are vowing to wait at the border until “every last one” is admitted into the US.

The migrant caravan was relatively unknown until Donald Trump started tweeting about them. Earlier this month, the US president warned that the “caravans” were coming, described the situation as “dangerous” and a “disgrace,” and vowed to stop these migrants from entering the country. Attorney general Jeff Sessions added that the US would not tolerate “the lawlessness of these types of efforts.”

Many of the migrants are fleeing gang violence and political persecution in Central America, and are therefore entitled to apply for asylum in the US. Immigration courts must hear their cases, but past data show their chances of getting asylum are slim.

Just over 60% of asylum claims were rejected in 2017, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University, or TRAC. It was the fifth year in a row that denial rates rose. In 2016, two-thirds of asylum-seekers from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, had their cases denied.

The likelihood of being granted asylum depended heavily on two factors: First, whether the applicant had a lawyer to represent them. In 2017, 54.4% of applicants with representation had their claim denied, compared with 90% of applicants without representation.

Second, asylum-seekers’ success varied widely based on the judge assigned to the case. TRAC found huge disparities between judges, even in the same immigration court. For asylum-seekers whose cases were decided in the San Francisco immigration court over the past six years, for example, the odds of rejection ranged from 9.4% to 97.1% depending on the judge. For asylum-seekers whose cases were heard by the Newark immigration court, the odds of denial ranged from 10.9% to 98.7%. Simply put: Nine out of 10 asylum-seekers were granted asylum by some judges, while less than one in 10 were successful before other judges, even within the same court.

An enduring crisis 

The caravan of migrants, many traveling with children, started their journey on March 25 in southern Mexico, near the Guatemala border. At that point, the caravan included more than 1,000 people, including many from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The group travelled by bus, train and on foot together, documenting their journey on social media and attracting plenty of press coverage, to highlight the dangers migrants face trying to escape violence and persecution. The caravan has since shrunk to around 300 people. The Mexican government deported some migrants, while others decided to stay in Mexico.

The group that organized the caravan, Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), has been helping migrants from Central America seek asylum for over 15-years. The group operatives on a simple philosophy; There is strength in numbers. Pueblo Sin Fronteras helps migrants stay together in a group throughout their journey, to protect themselves from harsh natural elements, as well as those who seek to abuse them, and to help them move past law enforcement officials. Pueblo Sin Fronteras provides shelter, food, and legal support. “We seek to become one collective, supporting each other shoulder to shoulder and demonstrating that by uniting we can abolish borders,” the group notes in their press release (pdf)

Volunteers from Pueblo Sin Fronteras claim this year’s caravan is different from previous years. They say the caravan is now largely dealing with vulnerable migrants fleeing violence and persecution. “About 80% of them are from Honduras,” a volunteer told NBC News. “We have around 300 minors ranging from 1 month old to 11 years old. As of the rest of the people, we have about 20 youths who identify as LGBT and about 400 women.”

In Honduras, a contested election sparked the worst political crisis in a decade last year. At least 30 people have been killed, many by the military police, according to the Committee for the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras. Amnesty International accused the government of using “dangerous and illegal tactics to silence any dissenting voices.”

Other migrants are fleeing corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence in Central America. Violence has long plagued the region known as the Northern Triangle, which includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These three countries, which many of the migrants originate from, are some of the most violent in the world.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras hopes the caravan will bring attention to what’s known as the Northern Triangle refugee crisis. While Mexico was once mainly a crossing point to the US for migrants, the country is now bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis itself. Last year, Mexico received almost 9,000 new asylum applications, a 156% increase from 2015.

Back at the US border, many asylum seekers are now waiting to be processed by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at the San Ysidro crossing. The group was told that the crossing facility, which would initially register them, didn’t currently have enough space to accommodate them. Once admitted to the crossing facility, the migrants would be taken to a detention center elsewhere and then interviewed by an asylum officer.