Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants
In the past, many people attempting to cross America’s southern border were adult men trying to evade border security and enter the country illegally. But presently, many border-crossers are families who enter at border checkpoints to request asylum from the U.S. government. In 2018, almost 100,000 people requested asylum (NY Times).
Asylum is protection given to foreign nationals who meet the international law definition of a refugee: someone forced to flee their home country for fear of persecution. The 1980 Refugee Act legally obligates the United States to protect migrants who qualify as refugees. A person granted asylum does not automatically become a citizen, but is able to live and work in the U.S.
Many asylum-seekers are fleeing political instability and violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Known as the Northern Triangle, these three nations are poverty stricken and have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. In Guatemala, 76% of the population is impoverished and 67% of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition (U.S. Agency for International Development). Asylum-seekers often report government corruption, drug trafficking, extortion by gangs, and lack of work as reasons for fleeing their homes.
Until recently, the United States helped these troubled nations to develop and improve conditions for their citizens by spending about $620 million annually on gang prevention and other aid. By cultivating opportunity and stability within the Northern Triangle, the U.S. attempted to address the root problems forcing asylum seekers to flee.
Citizens with adequate work opportunities and a safe environment are not motivated to leave in order to provide for their families and escape violence. Improved economic opportunity in Mexico is the primary reason that immigration from Mexico has dropped in recent years with more Mexicans now leaving the U.S. than entering.
In March, President Trump cut aid to the Northern Triangle as punishment for the high rates of immigration. The President accused these nations of intentionally sending caravans of migrants to cross the border, a claim unsupported by evidence.
Cutting U.S. aid is likely to produce the opposite of the desired effect. As lack of aid causes a decrease in stability and quality of life, and families feel heightened pressure to immigrate into the U.S. before it is too late. The President has also threatened to close ports of entry and the U.S.-Mexico border, a tactic that would do nothing to stop asylum seekers who have the legal right to request asylum.
The huge influx of asylum-seekers is a significant problem because the Customs and Border Protection agency is ill equipped to process such a large volume of asylum seekers. But the flow of Central American migrants cannot and should not be stopped by any amount of increased border security.
To fulfill the foundational principles of America, refuge must be provided to those in need, and under federal and international law, the United States is required to honor the applications of asylum seekers. To truly solve this problem, America should provide leadership and offer diplomatic and economic support, not hide behind borders and punish those in greatest need of compassion and aid.
Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environemntal sciences.