By Blake Hatling, pro-bono lawyer with The Advocates of Human Rights & Thomson Reuters account manager | 21 April 2015
Recently, I was lucky to represent a juvenile client through a difficult asylum claim. Our client was faced with an impossible decision in his home country: to join a violent and notorious street gang, or refuse their offer of recruitment and be subject to harassment, beatings and possibly death. Like thousands of other children facing similar circumstances our client made the excruciating decisions to leave every bit of life he knew and flee to North America. Sadly, this situation has become all too common. Central American countries Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are locked in a struggle against ruthless organized crime and street gangs.
The most pervasive of these groups is the gang known as Mara Salvatrucha. Life as a gang member can be dangerous, violent and short. Consequently, children and adolescents are targeted for recruitment into the gangs to sustain the gang’s numbers. When youth refuse, their options are limited. Refusal to join will commonly result in physical violence, harassment and even death to themselves, or family members. Rather than stay in their home countries and face a violent existence, more children are escaping across the border and heading north to join family, and are desperately seeking protection from stable countries like the United States. The rapid proliferation and expansion of these gangs combined with Central American government’s inability to diminish their influence have only accelerated the issue and has catalyzed the mass migration of youth appearing at United States borders.
The irony of this humanitarian crisis is that this issue has distinctly American roots. In the 1990’s, Los Angeles began to experience a rise in gang activity associated with communities that had recently fled from civil wars and repression in Central America. Principally among them was the Mara Salvatrucha. Changes in immigration law led to targeted deportation of gang members, and they were returned back to war torn El Salvador where the groups quickly established a violent presence. Now, fueled by drug trade money and other illicit activities, the Mara Salvatrucha has flourished and expanded outward into neighboring countries.
The difficulty of this asylum claim could, from another perspective, be its strength. The history and the violence of these gangs against potential recruits is well documented, and widely understood among the United States’ State Department. This occurrence is so wide spread, that it has begun to give courts pause before approving these asylum claims. To grant asylum protection to these minors on a large scale would throw open the floodgates to a deluge of children at our borders now. Moreover, it would likely encourage others to make the perilous journey across Mexico to the United States. As a result, the courts have slowed the approval of these cases to a fraction of what the need requires.
It is not totally imprudent for the courts to operate this way. When confronted with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, it would be more appropriate for Congress to demonstrate leadership and give instruction on how to manage the crisis. However, congress has been silent, or gridlocked on how to proceed and have left the immigration courts (often overworked and underfunded) to be the gatekeepers. The courts are reacting extremely cautiously. It is my opinion that the courts are not entirely to blame. This country’s asylum laws are an uncomfortable fit for managing the youth crisis in Central America, and the courts are overwhelmed with the task of managing these cases alone. A national organized effort is badly needed.