A History of Central-American Asylum-Seekers
December 1, 2018, Author: Susanne Jonas
Most of the asylum-seekers arriving at the US southern border are Central American women and children, the most vulnerable migrants, fleeing violence in their home countries (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador). Asylum-seekers are not unauthorized border-crossers; they voluntarily turn themselves in to US border officials to begin the asylum process. Even more important, they have long-established legal rights to seek asylum, based in both international law (e.g., 1951 UN Refugee Convention, 1984 UN Convention against Torture) and US national law (1980 Refugee Act).
In examining the surge of these asylum-seekers, we trace migrations over time and types of violence. This article describes wartime and postwar migrations, with a final focus on femicide and gender violence causing women to flee, often with their children.
Salvadorans and Guatemalans first became visible as asylum-seekers in the US during the 1970s-80s civil wars in their countries. Several hundred thousand political opponents and dissidents, targets of persecution by US-supported governments, fled to the US because they had a “well-founded fear” of being killed at home. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration denied 97-98% of asylum petitions by Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Only in the 1990s did a class action lawsuit (ABC v.Thornburgh) find those denials invalid, forcing the US government to give those asylum-seekers a second chance to petition for asylum. When their cases were heard in the early 2000s, a majority of the several hundred thousand who applied were successful.
The civil wars ended in 1992 (El Salvador) and 1996 (Guatemala). Why did the accumulation of asylum-seekers, additionally from Honduras, continue in the postwar period? For many different reasons:
1) Conditions for the middle and working classes and the poor in El Salvador and Guatemala were not alleviated by Peace Accords ending the wars. The accords failed to strengthen and modernize state institutions, leaving these countries with weak states — incompetent, indifferent, and unaccountable. Most serious, there were no provisions for the elites to pay sufficient taxes to fund state institutions providing for citizen safety/security, much less decent jobs or economic stability.
2) Corrupt, repressive, unaccountable governance and political repression continued. The most dramatic example was the 2009 right-wing coup in Honduras, supported by the United States. El Salvador suffered almost 20 years of rightist rule under ARENA (1989-2009) and most of Guatemala’s governments were right-wing and militaristic. In short, the postwar included a significant amount of state violence, persecution and assassinations – against activists for human rights and indigenous rights, environmental organizers, and journalists — and impunity vis-à-vis postwar violence. Since 2006, there has been a UN Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), but the current government is trying to shut it down.
3) Other U.S. actions compounded these situations, especially the greatly increased deportations under “Enforcement-Only” policies since the mid-1990s. In response to the formation of (mainly Salvadoran) gangs in Los Angeles during the 1990s among unemployed youth, the US carried out large-scale deportations of gang members since that time. These deportees have re-formed gangs throughout El Salvador which spread to Honduras, Guatemala, and southern Mexico, and thereby created threats to citizen security in the entire region.
4) Drug cartels, organized crime rings, and gangs operated throughout the region, making northern Central America the most violent region in the world not in a war, according to various UN agencies. The homicide rates are among the highest worldwide in these three countries, and entire communities have been terrorized and threatened with forced recruitment.
POSTWAR FEMICIDE AND GENDER VIOLENCE
Throughout this entire postwar time, gender-based violence has skyrocketed. This form of violence has received insufficient attention as a factor causing many women to seek asylum. I focus here on postwar Guatemala, where it has been most rampant over time. Gender violence was part of the 36-year civil war (1960-1996), but it was primarily directed against indigenous populations in rural highlands war zones. In the postwar, gender violence has been largely urban, and has taken two forms:
1) Femicide: targeted killings of women (killing them because they are women). It is a staggering accumulation: over 6,500 reported/unsolved femicide murders between 2000 and 2011; around 700 reported cases in 2016 and again in 2017 (not counting unreported) – two cases a day. For many years, Guatemala was first in femicides worldwide; since 2013, it has been third highest world-wide. Equally important, the killings have been met with governmental indifference and refusal to investigate or bring the perpetrators to justice – only 2-3% of cases were solved. None of this was changed by passage of a 2008 “Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Domestic Violence;” the number of femicides continued to increase and Guatemala was still highest in Central America in 2010.
2) Domestic violence against women: as UN sources characterize it, increasing “severe and prolonged” domestic abuse/ violence against women has fueled the surge of asylum-seekers. Since there is no relief anywhere in Guatemala, some abused women began fleeing these situations (often with their children, in families) seeking protection in the U.S. Some 140,000 reported domestic abuse cases were filed from 2001 to 2007 in Guatemala alone. Details of the abuse are quite horrifying. In 2008, domestic violence accounted for 70% of femicides. As with femicides, the spike in domestic violence has been ignored, not investigated, unsolved by Guatemalan police or other state authorities.
In many cases, gender-based violence has become linked to social violence from gangs, drug cartels, and organized crime rings. Norma Cruz, director of Fundación Sobrevivientes, which works with femicide victims’ surviving families –told me that this linkage had not existed in early postwar years, but has become more common — e.g., forced recruitment of girls by gangs, sometimes even by a gang-related family member.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees, UNHCR, did a survey of 160 interviews in 2015, using the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s own figures taken from “credible fear” asylum screening interviews for FY 2015. UNHCR reported the DHS finding that 82 percent of Central American women and girls interviewed in that process were likely to be eligible for asylum under the Convention against Torture.
Two high-profile cases involving Guatemalan domestic violence victims have been argued by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, at UC Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. CGRS won these legal battles against the US government, establishing that members of a persecuted particular social group (women abused by family members, who fear great harm because of their gender) should be entitled to asylum protection in the U.S. These affirmative asylum rulings were made in 2009 and 2014 respectively, the latter being a binding precedent. These victories resulted in a larger number of Central American women asylum-seekers citing gender violence as the basis for their cases
Even though seeking asylum is a universal legal and human right, the Trump Administration. is trying to dismantle the asylum system altogether. This past June, Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, struck down the validity of domestic abuse and gang violence as bases for seeking asylum, and argued that a “fear of abuse” will not be sufficient to gain asylum. Also in June, Sessions overturned the 2014 binding precedent concerning domestic violence. These and other arbitrary measures taken by the Trump administration are being challenged legally, as they violate existing laws, judgments, and precedents. Unless those measures are struck down, they threaten the integrity of the asylum system established by the Refugee Act of 1980.
As we reflect on the history of Central American asylum-seekers, we must acknowledge US responsibility for its involvement in past wars and present destabilization in the region. The US is legally responsible to grant asylum to qualifying petitioners under the 1980 Refugee Act and international law, mandated to allow asylum based on gender/domestic violence as determined by US courts, and ethically obligated to offer asylum by universal human rights considerations.
Susanne Jonas, a Pacifica resident taught Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz for 24 years. Her most recent book (co-authored with Nestor Rodríguez) is Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (2015).