For years, gang violence in the Northern Triangle—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—has continued to accelerate without any sign of slowing down. As residents flee their homes in search of safety and shelter, thousands have decided to journey north toward the United States.
Although the U.S. government has created new programs to assist Central American refugees, a fundamental gap in our refugee system makes it difficult to adequately address gang-driven violence. In order to better provide for our neighbors in Central America, we must expand our refugee assistance efforts in this area and adapt our refugee law to better accommodate this type of crisis.
In the Northern Triangle, gangs wield considerable power over the residents. They engage in violent crime and trafficking of all forms, terrorize women and young girls with rampant sexual violence and exploitation, force young men into gang membership, and target witnesses to their crimes with violence and death threats. Victims of gang violence often do not report the crimes against them, as state officials and law enforcement in the region have been unsuccessful in combating the gangs.
In 2015, it was estimated that some 550,000 people were internally displaced—meaning they fled their home, but stayed in their home country—within the Northern Triangle because of gang violence. However, this number is likely a low estimate, as many are in hiding and do not report crimes out of fear.
Unfortunately, those seeking refuge in America due to the violence are often unsuccessful. The regional allocation of refugees for Latin American/Caribbean is only 5,000 out of 110,000 for FY17, and the number of actual refugee admissions from this area has remained proportionately low.
In part, the reason people fleeing gang violence do not receive refugee status in the U.S. is because of the danger they’re fleeing.
The refugee system requires that applicants demonstrate persecution based on their race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. However, the vast majority of refugee applicants from this region do not fit within these groups because the violence is general, rather than targeted. Also, if the applicant was a member of a gang at some point (either voluntarily or involuntarily), they could be excluded.
Between 2014 and 2016, the Obama administration attempted to help out our neighbors by providing assistance for refugee applicants through targeted programs.
In 2014, the U.S. launched an effort to provide relief to children in this area with the Central American Minors (CAM) Program. Through this program, parents already legally within the U.S. could work with a Department of State-funded refugee resettlement agency to bring their child to the U.S. Each child was processed as a refugee, and DNA testing was used to confirm their familial relationship; those who did not qualify but were still found to be at risk were eligible for parole—permanent entry into the U.S. for humanitarian purposes.
CAM was expanded in 2016 to allow some of those accompanying a qualifying child to also apply for refugee status on the same application. Each of these additional individuals had to qualify on their own for refugee status. By the end of 2016, 10,700 children and family members had applied for refugee status through this program, and 960 of them were successfully resettled in the U.S.
In 2016, the U.S. created the Protection Transfer Agreement (PTA) Program with Costa Rica, which allows up to 200 refugee applicants at a time to stay in Costa Rica while their applications are under review. This program was meant to protect refugee applicants facing death threats from gangs, police, or soldiers while they awaited a decision.
Since President Trump’s inauguration, however, much of the progress has been reversed.
First, by reducing the annual refugee intake, the number of refugees admitted from the Northern Triangle region will likely be lowered even further, as the focus remains on more visible crises.
Second, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stated at an Atlantic Council event in Washington that many asylum and refugee seekers lie when they seek entrance into the U.S. and were taught what to say. This may explain the change in attitude of some officers in charge of conducting refugee and asylum interviews and making decisions, especially when lack of real proof is an unavoidable issue for many on the run.
Third, CAM may be under threat under the Trump Administration because of its reliance on humanitarian parole. The Trump administration sees parole as an overused back door into the U.S. and may seek to limit it in the future.
Here, Congress has an opportunity to better respond to this humanitarian nightmare.
Initially, the U.S. should expand the CAM and PTA programs and fully fund refugee resettlement and processing accounts. These measures will increase our ability to provide a safe haven to those on the run, ensure children in danger are protected, and enable the agencies working to help these refugees do their jobs to the best of their ability. This would also reduce the number of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. at the southern border, which would both reduce the massive backlog in the asylum system and increase security at the border.
But most importantly, changes should be made to the refugee law to include those who are fleeing gang violence. This could be done by including a gender nexus, allowing those fleeing gender-based persecution to qualify for refugee status.
The law could also be changed by recognizing broader, more inclusive social groups, which are groups recognized by society as distinct classes of people facing persecution because of that group membership. Such groups might include “those fleeing gang retaliation because they are witnesses to crimes” or “girls and women fleeing sexual violence and/or exploitation at the hands of gangs.”
Central American refugees are majority Christian, have no ties to terrorism, and live in our own hemisphere. The standard arguments the Trump administration outlines for rejecting Syrian or Iraqi refugees do not hold weight in this case. The U.S. has an opportunity to increase its reputation as humanitarians by taking in the refugees others aren’t focusing on, and that’s exactly what needs to be done.