Earlier this month, thousands of Central Americans began traveling together to make their way to Mexico and the United States. Some are fleeing violence, others are escaping endemic poverty, and all have made the difficult decision to undertake a grueling and perilous journey, seemingly undeterred by the Trump administration’s hostility towards migrants.
This migrant caravan, as in April, when a similar but smaller caravan of asylum-seekers came to the border, has unsurprisingly become the latest target of Donald Trump’s unhinged Twitter rants. Beyond his nativist and fear-mongering rhetoric, his administration has been pushing a proposal that would allow the U.S. to legally turn away asylum-seekers who travel through Mexico, which would only make it even more challenging for asylum-seekers like those in the caravan to find refuge in the U.S.
Elizabeth Camarena, the associate director of Casa Cornelia, a public interest law firm in San Diego that routinely works with asylum-seekers, stressed that people have the right to apply for asylum. “We cannot have laws and regulations and protections, but then when people try to access them, say that we don’t like it any more,” she said.
Jezebel spoke with Camarena and Casa Cornelia’s executive director Carmen Chavez on the increasing challenges people face in applying for asylum, their thoughts on Trump’s rhetoric on the migrant caravan, and why the Trump administration’s proposed changes to asylum policy won’t deter people from coming to the U.S.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: This is not the first time that asylum seekers have traveled in this way to the United States. Can you give more context on why people migrate in caravans?
ELIZABETH CAMARENA: These types of caravans have been happening for a while. But they haven’t been given the media attention that they now are being given.
The reasons as to why individuals travel, we have heard at a minimum, they travel because they are concerned for their safety as they travel. There’s a sense of security in numbers. Traveling in a group, you are bound to, as we understand it, to be able to cross Mexico in a safer manner, to be guided as opposed to be on your own where you might be more vulnerable, especially if you’re an unaccompanied minor or a woman, or a woman traveling with small children.
Donald Trump has said some really incendiary things, tweeting that they’re “criminals” and that he believes there are “unknown Middle Easterners” traveling as part of the caravan.
EC: In our experience, the people who travel are leaving their countries of origin for a reason. The individuals that we encounter and come to us for services are fleeing violence, are fleeing incidents where there’s insecurity, sometimes in their own homes, when they’re not able to access law enforcement, or even just violence in general when there is a lack of judicial process when they’ve been victimized, or there is no law enforcement agency in their country that they can rely on.
And their are other reasons. And I do not dispute there might be some individuals who are traveling for economic reasons. That in itself is a huge issue in Central America, especially in the triangle area [Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador] where society as a whole is disintegrating. Where there’s not only lack of security but there’s lack of opportunity in general, whether it’s housing issues, education, work, a variety of reasons. I think that you might find individuals fleeing for all of those reasons.
CARMEN CHAVEZ: Looking at the history of those countries, they’ve had a tremendous amount of a history of violence and insecurity. It’s been exacerbated by recent organized crime and gangs. In some of those villages, I would say they are the de facto law enforcement. So that really leaves people very few options. There is a level of desperation, they really are afraid.
And so now what you see is the summit. It’s reached this climax of the same desperation. And we’re seeing it unfold.
Applying for asylum is already a difficult process. It can be challenging to keep up with all of the changes that the Trump administration has already made or wants to make, in order to make it even harder for people to gain asylum. Can you share how the process has changed recently?
EC: Certainly the challenges are in different aspects of the process, whether you are applying for asylum affirmatively, meaning with the asylum office, or defensively, with immigration court. With the asylum office, it has been more difficult because they have the “first in, first out” processing, especially with someone who is not being represented. It’s a difficult proposition to be able to prepare an entire application and come to an interview within a very short period of time.
There is difficulty as well in finding proper representation. Even if someone is wanting to find representation, because immigration attorneys are so overwhelmed with the numbers, there is a shortage of immigration practitioners who are experienced enough to provide quality representation.
As far as the immigration courts are concerned, the fact that you have so many people in detention facilities, that also complicates matters, because it does prolong processing. When you have a system that is not prepared to deal in the large numbers that they’re dealing with now, there’s bound to be waits.
And on the other hand, immigration judges, they now have demands for not necessarily approvals or denials, but just to get the dockets cleared. So the judges are under pressure to clear the docket as quickly as possible. For someone who has suffered persecution, torture, who’s fleeing [violence] and who’s in the detention facility, that in itself is a retraumatization of the individual.
In the best of times, it’s a very nervewracking and anxious time for anyone. Imagine now on top of that, you are in detention with thousands of individuals and rushed and hurried so we can decide whether to grant you refugee status.
Specifically for asylum seekers who transit through Mexico, the Trump administration is pushing for a safe third country agreement, which would allow the U.S. to legally turn away asylum seekers who travel through Mexico. What impact would that have?
EC: In the last several years, we’ve actually had an increase in numbers of Mexican nationals seeking asylum from Mexico. So Mexico itself is dealing with its own challenges. So that’s one item that comes to mind.
If that sort of agreement were to be put in place, what would the impact be on asylum seekers?
EC: I would pose that we would continue to have individuals seeking asylum in the United States. The individuals that have come to Mexico from elsewhere, and we’re not just talking about people from Latin America, we’re talking about people from all over the world, who made an attempt to settle in Mexico, we find that they also sometimes seeking our services because they have not found safety, or the ability to integrate in the legal sense of the term.
We’re finding that some of those individuals are moving forward because Mexico is not able to offer them the safety and integration and the security of really being resettled with the full opportunity and rights as a Mexican national.
As an attorney who works with clients who are applying for asylum, what do you think when you see and hear the Trump administration’s rhetoric around asylum seekers?
EC: Certainly, we’re not naive. I’ve been practicing for over 20 years. We do have a system. We have a justice system that we need to be able to rely on. An individual has a right to ask and be considered for asylum. If we do not like the way we are currently a signatory to the UN convention, that’s a different conversation.
As it stands now, this is the law. This is our policy. People must have access to that. We cannot have laws and regulations and protections, but then when people try to access them, say that we don’t like it any more.
Specifically, when we see the numbers that we’re seeing, if you consider the worldwide scope, there’s over 160 million people on the move for various reasons, leaving their countries of origin on account of wars and other issues. If we’re talking about 2,000 or 4,000 individuals coming from Central America, that is not a significant number if we’re talking about worldwide immigration.
We do have a system in place. It does require resources. It requires immigration judges, officers, a system in place to process all of that.
But we cannot do away with that just because we don’t like the numbers, or we oppose so many people accessing that guarantee we have in our laws, that you are able to ask for protection.
CC: Contrary to what we sometimes hear, that it’s so easy to obtain asylum status or asylum protections, in fact it is a difficult process. It’s not so easy. They have to meet the burden of proof, they have to be found credible.
This is our current law. It goes to the very heart of our commitment to due process and the opportunity to be heard.