border wall
A mesh wall on the U.S. Mexico border between Tijuana and San Diego reflects onto the window of a Border Patrol vehicle. Migrants without visas who are brazen enough to cross the wall must cut through with a saw or go over top using carpet, mattresses or ladders to protect themselves from being cut. Refugees can present themselves at customs and declare their intention to apply for asylum. Cedar Attanasio / Latin Times

Tijuana, Mex. — Grey mesh walls on the San Diego side of the border stand 20 feet in the air (as high as great white shark from tail to jaw) topped with the razor-toothed slinkies of chrome concertina wire. At near the beach, the wall sheds the wire before slipping into the sea, disappearing into the imaginary maritime like that divides Mexico and the U.S. Migrants arriving to the San Diego/Tijuana border crossings from as close as Guatemala and as far as Russia and Pakistan have three main paths to get enter the U.S. from Mexico.

They can walk across with a valid visa, brave the bites and drownings of the wall, or present themselves to a Customs and Border Patrol officer and declare their intention to become a refugee, to petition for asylum. Applying for this specific type of refugee status is not easy.

But thousands of migrants have done just that in greater numbers over the past few years, particular women with children, and mostly those from Central America. According to one CBP official, there has even been a dedicated line for asylum seekers at a customs entry point here.

Since a spike in arrivals of Central American migrants in 2014, many of these asylum claims have been rejected on merit, or due to lack of legal representation or because migrants have missed their court dates. Immigration judges have ruled that these recent migrants are fair game for deportation. Reports indicate that ICE agents (who conduct immigration raids under the direction of DHS) are gearing up to pull these migrants from their new homes.

Of the estimated 15,000 that may be deported block by block it is very likely that at least some will become victims of homicide in their home countries.

To make matters worse for the White House, the administration’s own legal house is not in order. It’s immigration jails rife with well-documented abuses, and immigration courts are are backlogged. In some cases, live-and-death decisions are based on asylum interviews are relegated to the pixelated sloshings of remote video conferencing. In most cases migrants aren’t represented by a lawyer.

Advocates Clash With Obama Administration, L.A. Times Editorial

That and many other circumstances has prompted the following debate: which self-styled refugees, if any, should be deported to countries like El Salvador where men, women and children are increasingly caught in escalating violence that looks a lot like a civil war?

A Tuesday Los Angeles Times editorial in support of the deportations served as our starting point in the debate (discounting anti-immigrant groups, whose comments have been more predictable and less interesting).

“To not deport those whom an immigration judge has ruled ineligible to remain in the country is to throw over any notion of enforceable immigration law. And that is an indefensible position,” the Editorial Board wrote.

But immigration advocates are defending this position in print and in protests all week from Los Angeles to Washington, criticizing ICE, the White House and the immigration court system itself.

“We call on the Obama Administration and DHS to halt all plans to deport Central American families and to offer instead humane, just, and merciful solutions. [...] These Central American families, in their majority women and children, are fleeing persecution and violence in the countries of origin,” says Angelica Salas, Executive Director for CHIRLA, in a statement.

CHIRLA, like most other immigration advocates, does not specify which failed asylum-seekers should be deported. In doing so, they imply that using the asylum system as a point of entry is fair game for all refugees. But not even those who fear violence are eligible for asylum.

Not All Fleeing Violence Are Eligible For Asylum

The problem for immigration advocacy groups on the legal front is that fleeing persecution and violence isn’t enough to make someone qualify for asylum. It might make them refugees in common parlance but by law asylum-seekers also have to be a member of a protected class, such as a religious, political or ethnic group.

The definition of a persecuted group can be stretched, but only so far. Being a woman or a child has not, to our knowledge, ever served as reason enough for asylum. That’s one of the reasons why Mexican journalists, Afghani translators, Sudanese ethnic minorities and other have received asylum, while some El Salvadorans fleeing gang violence have not. Some advocates have dismissed this fundamental requirement of asylum.

“If one faces persecution, one faces persecution,” writes Bryan Johnson, an immigration lawyer, in an op-ed for Latino Rebels, titled The Los Angeles Times’ Editorial Board Endorses Deporting Toddlers to Death.

ICE Raids

Disputes over the fine points of asylum law don’t change the facts on the ground for immigrant communities, particularly Latino neighborhoods, where the raids are likely to take place. Nor do they erase the lack of due process that stains the asylum verdicts.

“Even the mere suggestion of possible ICE raids induces terror and chaos in the community and nation at large. In their haste to return the migrants home, the U.S. government has failed to ensure Central American migrants have proper representation in court, and as a result, many have been wrongly denied asylum and/or deported in absentia,” Salas says.

What she doesn’t say is that many of these migrants tried in absentia have failed to appear in court. While the Obama administration can’t honestly say that all of these migrants have been given the best possible chance to prove their claims, advocates can’t guarantee that they are anywhere near eligible for asylum status.

At stake are the lives of the immigrants facing deportation now as well as the legitimacy of the asylum process that could save countless lives in the future. How many migrants could die following deportation? And how many rejected asylum seekers can stay in the U.S. before the program becomes meaningless, no more than a border loophole?

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