Recently, a group of about 200 Central Americans arrived at the U.S. border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, vowing to wait there until they were granted asylum in the United States. But that’s not how asylum works.
There are about 65 million refugees and displaced persons scattered around the world. The international body responsible for protecting refugees is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It oversees camps around the world where refugees are fed and cared for while they wait two years or more while they are processed and vetted before being accepted by nations willing to take them.
Refugees aren’t just people looking for a better job. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, and is located outside the country of his of her nationality, is unable — or owing, to fear, is unwilling — to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.
The important parts of this definition are that the person has to be outside their country of origin and the reason for their flight has to be a well-founded fear of persecution — that is, they have to have experienced it or be likely to experience it if they return — and the persecution has to result from one or more of the five grounds of persecution: reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
United States immigration law allows the government to grant asylum to refugees who present themselves to the government on U.S. soil, which includes U.S. embassies around the world. The premise behind asylum is that if the U.S. returns the person to their country of origin they are likely to face persecution or death. Asylum allows them to live in the U.S. permanently and eventually apply for citizenship if they choose to do so. The United States runs the world’s largest refugee resettlement program and accepts about 85,000 refugees a year. But asylum is intended to deal with individual situations, not be a means of circumventing the refugee process.
In recent years, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have experienced a dramatic escalation in violence by organized criminal groups. Homicide rates have soared, and the number of people fleeing for their lives from Central America has grown by 10 times in the past five years. But fear of crime on the streets or lack of economic opportunity does not meet the standard for refugee status: persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
According to the U.N. Convention, refugees are supposed to stop in the first country they reach where they are safe. For the 200 or so asylum seekers who journeyed by caravan to the U.S. border, that would be Mexico. If they are in fact “refugees,” the proper way to deal with their situation — the way it is done elsewhere around the world — would be for the United Nations to set up refugee camps in Mexico where these people can be cared for in safety.
The asylum-seekers in Tijuana are more of a publicity stunt than a humanitarian crisis. In a sense, President Trump brought this on with his Tweets. Earlier, a caravan of 1,200 people from Central America formed and announced it was heading to the U.S. border. It then disbanded. But Trump had Tweeted about it repeatedly, turning it into a political cause for the left. There are now more anti-Trump protestors on the U.S. side of the border than there are asylum seekers on the Mexican side.
Two hundred people is hardly a flood of desperate refugees such as those fleeing to Europe from war-torn Syria. Many of the Tijuana asylum seekers interviewed by the press stated their motive was to find work, not to escape persecution.
I sympathize with the plight of those who are suffering under failed governments in Central America. But to call them refugees or grant them asylum is a disservice to the legitimate refugees around the world. They should take their cause to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, not Washington D.C.