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Why So Many Central Americans Are Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

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This summer, the Trump administration ended its “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their asylum-seeking parents at the southern border. This policy and the plight of hundreds of children still separated from their families, inspired many Americans to look closely at why so many asylum seekers from Central America are being detained.

[Visit KQED Learn to see our collection of classroom resources and student discussion prompts on this topic]

The Above the Noise video gives an overview of the asylum process today, and how it got started after World War II. With the horrors of the Holocaust still fresh, world leaders wanted to protect people in the event they had to flee their own countries. The 1951 U.N. treaty specifically protects refugees with a credible fear of persecution or torture by their own governments based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. In the United States, this means anyone with a credible fear can’t be immediately deported. If they arrive seeking asylum and prove they have a credible fear during a border screening, their case must be decided in an immigration court. This put asylum seekers in a different category than those crossing the border in search of work or a better life. Undocumented economic migrants can be immediately deported without a hearing.

Today, gang violence rather than government persecution is driving many people out of the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But the two gangs threatening poor communities in those countries got their start in American cities like Los Angeles back in the 1980s. This year, the Trump administration told immigration courts to deny asylum claims of people escaping gangs. Gangs, some lawmakers argue, aren’t governments, so people escaping gang persecution can’t qualify for asylum. But asylum seekers say their own governments aren’t doing anything to stop gang-related murder, sexual assault and extortion–and they fear they and their families will be the next victims.

This most recent spike in asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle echoes an earlier spikes the late 1980s and in 1995 related to decades of violent conflict in the region. A sharp uptick in asylum seekers in 1989 is attributed to the Nicaraguan Revolution, which ended in 1990 after 11 years. The next big increase wasn’t until 1995 in the final days of a 36-year civil war in Guatemala and just three years after a 12-year civil war ended in El Salvador. Asylum seekers from Northern Triangle dropped significantly in the late 1990s, from a high of 104,228 in 1995 to just 21,599 by 1997. Advocates say this shows that fear of violence drives Northern Triangle residents to leave their home countries, not economic opportunity or other factors.

Read the graphic to learn more about the history of gangs like MS-13 and how decades-old immigration policies helped sow the seeds of violence plaguing the Northern Triangle. If you want to learn more after reading, check out this article and documentary from Frontline.

Spanish language transcript of the Above the Noise video is also available.



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