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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Is the Asylum System to Blame for Migrant Deaths?

    We think of spring in the Northern hemisphere as a time of rebirth and renewal. But in the Mediterranean, for refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea, it is a time of dying.
    Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

    Last month, over 800 people died when an overcrowded boat sank en router from Libya to Southern Europe. That brings the number of migrant deaths at sea during this season to 1,780 people, as compared to 96 people during the same period last year.


    By contrast, deaths at the U.S. border are down from previous years. The Associated Press reports that, "The number of people who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to the lowest level in 15 years as more immigrants turned themselves in to authorities in Texas and fewer took their chances with the dangerous trek across the Arizona desert." In FY 2014, the government recorded 307 deaths at the border. Although this is significantly lower than what we are seeing in Europe, hundreds of people are still dying each year on their journeys to the United States (and of course this figure does not include people who die on the route to the U.S. before they reach our border).


    In many cases, the migrants coming to Europe and the United States are fleeing severe violence in their home countries. They are desperate people seeking safety and a better life in the West. And although in many ways the U.S. and Europe are hostile to asylum seekers, we do provide strong "pull factors" that encourage people to make the journey. We offer such people asylum.


    So it's fair to ask: Does the very fact that we offer asylum provide an incentive for people to risk their lives--and sometimes die--to reach our country?


    A recent bill proposed in Congress and passed by the House Judiciary Committee seems to answer this question in the affirmative. The bill, called the Protection of Children Act of 2015, would "protect" unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. by sending them home more expeditiously. One of the bill's sponsors, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) explained the rationale for this new legislation:
    The Obama Administration’s immigration policies have given confidence to parents who are in the U.S. illegally that they can stay and have encouraged them to bring their children, who are still in Central America and beyond, to the United States unlawfully. These children, often assisted by smugglers, face many dangerous situations as they travel through Mexico and then walk miles across a hostile border environment. We need to take action to stop these children from risking their lives to come to the United States unaccompanied and unlawfully. The Protection of Children Act makes common sense changes to our laws to ensure minors who travel to the U.S. alone are returned home safely and quickly.

    While the bill will not, in fact, protect any children (rather, it will harm them), the Protection of Children Act is--at least in part--an effort to reduce the incentive for people to come to the U.S. for asylum and thus an effort to reduce the number of people who die attempting to reach our country.


    But still, the question remains: Do our asylum laws encourage people to come illegally to the United States and risk their lives in the process? Is our generosity killing people?


    One way to look at the question is to explore the motivation for asylum seekers' coming to the U.S. Which is more important, the "push" of danger in the home country or the "pull" of asylum in the United States? If the "pull" is more important, we would expect that people from similar countries would come to the U.S. in similar numbers, regardless of violence levels in those countries. So for example, we would expect to see people coming to the U.S. in similar numbers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (all poor Central American countries). A review of the data, however, indicates that this is not the case. Many more people come to the U.S. from the more violent countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) than from the less violent one (Nicaragua) (I have written more about this here).


    Some of the disparity may be because there are more people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in the U.S. than there are people from Nicaragua, and so perhaps migrants are not fleeing violence, but instead are coming here for family unity. There is no doubt that this is part of the equation. However, according to the Pew Foundation, there are roughly 408,261 Nicaraguans in the U.S. By comparison, there are 774,866 Hondurans, 1,265,400 Guatemalans, and 1,969,495 Salvadorans in the United States. I could not find recent data on the number of Nicaraguans coming to the U.S., but for December 2014, Nicaragua was not even in the top 10 sending countries for asylum seekers. In that month, 333 people filed for asylum from Honduras, 495 from El Salvador, and 546 from Guatemala. One hundred and fifty four people filed for asylum from India, which is # 10 on the list, so we know that even fewer people sought asylum from Nicaragua. Given the significant number of Nicaraguans living in the U.S., if family unity was the main “pull” factor, we would expect greater numbers of migrants from Nicaragua.


    All this leads to the conclusion that violent conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are “pushing” people to come to the United States. And, by the way, this squares with anecdotal evidence from the asylum seekers themselves and the lawyers (like me) who represent them.


    So what does it all mean? If people are coming here mainly due to “push” factors (violence) and not “pull” factors (asylum), then making it more difficult for them to claim asylum in the U.S. (or Europe) is unlikely to dissuade them from making the journey.


    Most asylum seekers, like most people, are rational and respond to their environment in rationale ways. If conditions are violent and they fear for their lives, people will flee. If there is somewhere safe for them to go, they will go. The Protection of Children Act does nothing to protect such people. It merely shifts the problem somewhere else. To help reduce the number of asylum seeker deaths, the United States and Europe need to do more to address the root causes of violence. Making life even more difficult for those fleeing harm will only make a bad situation worse.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

    Updated 05-05-2015 at 09:13 AM by JDzubow

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