Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Asylum Policy and Our Nation’s Values

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka, an immigration attorney in El Paso, speaks out against the recent changes to U.S. asylum policy on the southern border. The following article appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of NewsNotes

Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If that is the measure, the United States has been in serious trouble for many years. Today, however, if one judges by our civil immigration prisons, this nation risks being deemed entirely uncivilized.

Congress ratified the 1967 UN Protocol on the Status of Refugees in 1968. The Protocol committed the United States to the refugee protections of the 1951 Convention and extended the Convention to all persons forced to flee their countries of origin for fear of persecution based on specific grounds, e.g. political opinion, race, religion and nationality. While far from perfect, the U.S. has followed robust refugee laws and protections for those asking for asylum for decades.

Today, the U.S. government is a giant wrecking ball, repeatedly crashing into the structure of these guarantees, compromising the foundation of our nation. An individual or a family who arrives today at the U.S.-Mexico border claiming persecution and asking for asylum will most likely never have a chance to fairly defend their claims. Fundamental human rights and due process are being ignored and dismantled. Far from the border, policies seem to be made based on political and electoral goals, not on democracy, the Constitution and the foundations of this nation.

Recently, a U.S. government official has baldly stated that we would welcome immigrants if they could only come from European countries. Like the principle behind keeping prisoners at Guantanamo, the government has attempted to undo legal protections for migrants by keeping them off U.S. soil, or by treating them so inhumanely that they will give up their claim to asylum. 

The “metering” program forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their number is called. A migrant may wait six months on the streets or in a shelter, unable to work and with no resources. For example, Mr. M. held number 18,320 on the day border officials were calling 13,200. When his number is finally called, he will most likely have to be his own “attorney,” because there are so few pro bono immigration attorneys, and they do not work in Mexico. 

In contrast to metering,  the “Remain in Mexico” policy processes asylum-seekers into the immigration system at the U.S. border, schedules a hearing in immigration court for months later, and then returns them back to Mexico where they might be left to live on the streets with no resources and become easy prey for gangs and other criminals. People consistently report robbery, rape, extortion and kidnapping. The wrecking ball strikes again.

The Fifth Amendment is being compromised when the U.S. government tries to deny bond to those who await asylum hearings behind bars. Although they are in “civil” custody, and most have never committed a crime, they are not eligible for bond release, and have fewer rights and less access to justice than persons in our criminal justice system.

Last week, government agencies announced a new rule to undo the Flores Settlement that protected children from prolonged immigration detention. The new policy will keep families detained with no time limit on the detention. 

Current U.S. policy is to deny asylum to anyone who has passed through another country between their home country and the U.S. southern border, literally leaving only Canadians and Mexicans as legal claimants for asylum. The Administration has also bullied Guatemala into an agreement that designates it as a “safe third country,” meaning that any asylum-seeker from any country who is denied entry or asylum in the U.S. could be returned to Guatemala instead of their country of origin, because Guatemala has been declared “safe.” It is curious that at the same time, the State Department has encouraged U.S. citizens to “rethink” travel to Guatemala because it is not safe. 

The independent authority of Department of Justice appointed immigration judges is also under attack by the Administration. The immigration court shut down essential due process protections like Friend of the Court and “know your rights” trainings for those waiting in Mexico who have no access to attorneys except on the day of their asylum hearings. Some attorneys who travel to Mexico to work with the asylum-seekers have reported repeated questions and harassement by border patrol agents when they return to the U.S.

We have the capacity to be a nation that respects the rights and dignity of all persons - it is one of our founding principles. We have the moral obligation to be that nation, not the one we are today. 

Photo of Heidi Cerneka giving legal counsel to asylum seekers courtesy of Maryknoll Lay Missioners.