The word “refugee” usually conjures up images of desperate families fleeing ruinous war zones in faraway lands like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.
But you don’t have to spin the globe that far to find a refugee crisis here in our own backyard. Just look south of the U.S. border, to Central America.
Central America may not be in the grips of a traditional civil war like it was in the 1980s, but the gang wars between the MS-13 (Salvatrucha), the Mara 18, and state security forces in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have turned the so-called “Northern Triangle” into the deadliest region in the world outside of Syria. Also similar to traditional war zones, much of the violence is sexual and gender-based, or related to issues of forced recruitment—all of which makes women, children, and teenagers particularly vulnerable.
It’s hard to over-exaggerate how violent the northern half of Central America has become. As recently as two years ago, the murder rate in El Salvador spiked to levels of carnage not seen in that country since the heaviest days of fighting during that country’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 after claiming some 75,000 lives. El Salvador’s murder rate has since inched downward, but it’s still one of the most murderous places in the world.
So it should come as no surprise that Salvadoran families in recent years have been fleeing to the United States in numbers not seen on our border since since the 1980s Central American refugee crisis. The only difference is that the U.S. government no longer considers them refugees—now they’re just immigrants.
Of the 69,933 refugees that the United States accepted in 2015, not a single person came from Central America. Instead, Central Americans who come here escaping violence enter the country as asylum-seekers. It’s a distinction that is partially semantics and partially procedural. Refugee status is a legal protection that is granted outside of the U.S., while asylum status is something that is requested at a port of entry.
But here’s the rub. Asylum-seekers get put into deportation proceedings as soon as they enter the country, which puts an enormous burden of proof on them to convince the U.S. immigration judge that their lives are in danger if they are returned to their country of origin. Oftentimes asylum-seekers are put in immigrant detention centers where they have to fight for the right to stay here from behind bars and without access to a lawyer.
Refugees have it tough, but they don’t live in constant fear of deportation once they make it to the United States. They don’t live with the fear that it could all be taken away from them at a moment’s notice. For asylum-seekers, the fear is real.
Violence is violence, and war is war. But in the eyes of the U.S. law, not everyone fleeing violence is created equal. That should change. If our parents, grandparents or great grandparents came here as immigrants and were given an opportunity to make a better and more peaceful life for themselves here, don’t we owe the same opportunity to people who are fleeing violence in their home countries? Does it really matter whether they’re classified as refugees or asylum-seekers?
During a week when we pause to commemorate World Refugee Day, maybe we should spend a moment reflecting on how we treat all people who come here seeking refuge.