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Syria and Central America test the magic line between refugees and immigrants

By Aryn Braun and Meggie Morris

By 2015, millions  of Middle Eastern and Central American people had fled violence in their home countries only to have their progress blocked by nations sworn to help them.

International immigration processing systems that have traditionally provided a path to safety are now crumbling as thousands of families leave their homes in search of security in Europe and the United States, immigration experts say.

“The existing international framework is at a breaking point,” said Adam Chilton, a University of Chicago professor of international law.

While Syrian refugees pour into Europe, Chilton said, asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras head north to the United States in large numbers, and “we simply don’t know how to process this information.”

A little history

People fleeing both Central America and Syria are seeking economic opportunity, asylum or religious freedom in numbers not seen since World War II. Myriad issues from climate change and civil war to criminal gang activity have created new categories of people who might need protection, said Susan Gzesh, executive director of Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. These people are not considered under current forms of law, she said.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, considered the authoritative charter on refugee rights around the world, still protects the rights of displaced people 65 years later, Gzesh said. But modern complications, including the changing nature of nation-states and the emergence of non-state terrorist groups, now thwart the ability of people to obtain asylum.

The convention, originally geared toward addressing displacement in post-war Europe, was amended in 1967. The new protocol modified the original refugee classifications, omitting explicit geographic and temporal limitations associated with World War II to include refugee crises around the world.

A double standard?

Ongoing contention over the definition of “refugee” complicates U.S. immigration policy regarding Central American asylum seekers, said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of American Immigration Lawyers.

While there seems to be increasing acknowledgement that Central Americans fleeing violence and civil war are indeed refugees, at some point they cross some magical line when they stop being refugees the closer they get and we treat them as border crossers, Johnson said.

Once at the border, status matters.

“The border has to reflect our traditional humanitarian values,” said James Morsch, a member of the Leadership Board of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The unaccompanied minor from Honduras that is 10 years old is not a member of ISIS and she is not a national security threat to this country.”

It’s a double standard, Morsch said. In crossing the United States’ southern border illegally, economic migrants and asylum seekers alike complicate the legal immigration system. Therein lies the problem, Johnson added. There is a clear and important distinction between the two groups in determining who is eligible for refugee status.

Cooperation is key

Furthermore, Europe lacks comprehensive regional immigration policy, Chilton said. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, European countries have made substantially different commitments to the number of refugees each is willing to accept. The spillover from one country may directly affect its neighbors.

“So if Germany says that it is going to be welcoming of refugees, they have an impact on what is going to happen in Austria and in Hungary and in Macedonia and in Greece, one after the other,” Chilton said.

But international coordination and cooperation is hard to enforce, he said, because no country wants to be the first to welcome refugees and deal with the burden of processing millions of asylum claims. This is particularly important to countries along the Mediterranean, like Greece, that may see thousands of people arrive on its shores each day.

Without a cooperative regional or global immigration strategy, Chilton said, people will increasingly enter countries unchecked, causing formal migration processes to deteriorate.

Similarly, the United States has experimented with a coordinated approach to Central Americans. Without the infrastructure in place to assess and process possible Northern Triangle asylum seekers in their home countries, they flood into the United States and Mexico in the hopes of flying under the radar, mostly to be turned away at the border, Johnson said.

Only after those entering the United States come in contact with the U.S. immigration system do courts decide whether they are allowed to stay. Even so, long screening processes drive them to enter the United States illegally rather than waiting to seek formal asylum, Chilton said.

Asylum and national security

Language is important at every turn  in determining refugee status. If people cannot express evidence of “credible fear” in their home country upon reaching the U.S.-Mexico border with the specific words immigration officials look for, such as persecution and torture, their asylum case isn’t as strong, Morsch said.

“They say things like ‘there is no future for me at home. I have family here. I’m afraid of life at home,’” Morsch said. “Those aren’t grounds for asylum.”

Much of the emphasis on strict border control stems from U.S. national security concerns. Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA, however, said long term security challenges concerning relations with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China far outweigh the possibility that those entering the U.S. will commit terrorist acts.

Cherif Bassiouni, a founding member of DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute, said he doubts the moral integrity of modern worldwide immigration systems. There will never be a race to the top to be generous to refugees, Bassiouni said, because political decisions should be more heavily influenced by empathy.

Hayden agreed, saying the United States should grant asylum to significantly more people, placing responsibility on security agencies to detect any possible terrorist threats.

“We are a welcoming people, we should welcome people in need,” Hayden said. “We should then turn to our security services and [say], now you, you make sure nothing bad happens, get it?”

Photo at top: Demonstrators rally outside the Thompson Center in December, protesting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s call to temporarily ban Syrian refugees from settling in Illinois. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

“Wall” trumps policy in Republican race

By Aryn Braun and Meggie Morris

Despite frequent jokes about Donald Trump’s proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration lawyers and experts warn political rhetoric has perilously consumed the national debate surrounding border control, immigration and national security.

“The border, in my mind, has turned into a political campaign commercial,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “We’ve lost control of it as a legitimate discussion about what does real border security look like.”

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Protests plague Anita Alvarez’s campaign

By Aryn Braun and Meggie Morris

At a community forum on gender-based violence in Chicago on Wednesday, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was hounded on all fronts, on stage by competitor Donna More, and in the audience by protesters confronting her at all three of her campaign appearances this week.

The event started smoothly as Alvarez returned to her alma mater, Chicago-Kent College of Law, to take her seat on stage next to Kim Foxx, whom the Cook County Democratic Party endorsed last month.

Halfway through the forum, protesters stood one by one, counting to 16 to signify the number of times Chicago teenager Laquan Mcdonald was shot by former police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. Alvarez’s decision to wait 400 days before charging Van Dyke with first-degree murder has plagued her campaign for reelection.

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Pop-up library celebrates black women

By Meggie Morris

Earlier this month, Scheherazade Tillet watched an older, African-American man take the stage at Breathing Room, a recurring event that inspires proactive conversation about transformative justice through art and performance.

Holding Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” the man admitted to the audience he had only just finished it, before inviting the youngest person in the room to take it from him, said Tillet, an artist and feminist leader. The memory has stuck with her.

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Activists debate over black-only space

By Meggie Morris

Two weeks after Buzzfeed leaked emails from a University of Chicago fraternity, revealing four years of racist and misogynistic sentiment, students, faculty and local organizers gathered last week to discuss the complexities of racism and activism.

As social justice movements gain momentum and exposure nation-wide, activists remain concerned about the balance between exclusive and collaborative spaces needed for effective activism. While students and younger activists voiced the need for exclusivity, professors said sustainable movements require coalition work.

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Recruiting minorities is not the solution to police reform, say community groups

By Meggie Morris

Community-based organizations demanding police reform say recruiting more minorities to better reflect Chicago’s demographics is not enough to improve police-community relations.

The recruitment campaign, which is to end this week, will be ineffective unless the city first addresses the policing system as a whole, the groups say.

“It certainly is a prerequisite for improving police relations,” said Ted Pearson of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “However, until the community has control of the police it really doesn’t matter who they hire.”

When the Chicago Police Department announced late last year that it was hiring officers for the first time since 2013, the city said the recruitment drive’s most important objective was to increase the force’s ethnic diversity.

“This effort will not only help ensure our department remains fully staffed as we work to fight gun violence,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said then in a written statement. “But will also help ensure that the makeup of the force better reflects the makeup of our city.”

The ethnic makeup of the Chicago Police Department as of January 2016

According to the Chicago Police Department, white police employees account for more than half the police department. (Meggie Morris/MEDILL)

According to Camesha Jones of Black Youth Project 100, encouraging individuals to join the CPD to initiate reform from the inside will never be feasible.

“Our stance is pretty much that the system of policing is flawed,” she said. “We’re against the system of policing, it doesn’t matter… if it’s a black or a white person.”

Recruitment is just one of the initiatives that surfaced in 2015 as part of the city’s response to the issue of police accountability. In May, the City Council approved a $5.5 million reparations fund for victims of police torture. In August, the CPD agreed to an independent evaluation of investigatory stops, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois published a report questioning the constitutionality of “stop and frisk” procedures.

And in November, three weeks before the city released dash cam video showing a white police officer fatally shooting black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the recruitment campaign was announced.

For community advocacy groups, replacing cops is not the solution. A civilian-elected board that not only monitors policing, but has authority over how communities are policed, however, is.

A coalition of organizations supports the establishment of the Civilian Police Accountability Council. According to legislation they drafted more than two years ago, 25 elected civilians representing each of the city’s districts would be authorized to select the police superintendent and investigate misconduct complaints and all police shootings. The board would also have the power to discipline officers and determine police procedures, rules, and use of force guidelines.

“An independent police account board would be a more fair and just solution to dealing with police misconduct and harm reduction,” said Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, which is part of the growing coalition.

Some members of the communities these organizations represent are not waiting for the city’s approval of the Civilian Police Accountability Council to begin the process of police reform. Instead, they are applying to join the CPD as police officers, optimistic that in time they can make a difference.

Danielle Wright, who is hoping to help her city with the tools she learned as an Aviation Ordnanceman in the U.S. Navy, said improving attitudes in Chicago towards police and within the CPD towards the communities depends on shared responsibility.

“We can play a part as individuals, but it takes more than one person to change anything,” she said. “You can stand here and say ‘I want change, I want better, I want peace’, but if you just standing alone, it’s going to be a difficult task to overcome by yourself. It has to be everybody – one sound, one team – everybody in for the same cause.”

Southside native Katina Hewitt agreed, but said in order to make that happen, the police need to start the process themselves.

“The youth are not going to agree with trying to join the police when they’re shooting the youth, when they’re killing youth,” the 22-year-old said. “This needs to be a slow process, but both sides gotta put in the work.”

Photo at top: The Chicago Police Department puts on a show at a recruitment event Jan. 9, 2015. (Meggie Morris/MEDILL)

Prominent Chicago resident runs for President of Sierra Leone and is charged with bigamy

By Bian Elkhatib and Meggie Morris

Almost 5,000 miles away from his home in Chicago, Sierra Leonean Alie Kabba awaits trial in Freetown.

He is charged with bigamy, but his supporters say the contrived charge is because he is running for President of his homeland.

Since arriving in the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 1991, Kabba has become a prominent community leader in the Chicago area. He is executive director of the United African Organization (UAO) and was the first African board president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

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