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

Demonstrators rally outside the Thompson Center in December, protesting Gov. Bruce Rauner's desire to temporarily ban Syrian refugees from settling in Illinois. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

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)