The issue of asylum has become a hot-button topic across the U.S.
Ignited by the Trump administration's decision to separate families who crossed into the U.S. seeking asylum and subsequent decision to quickly end the practice, it has become a flash point in the national immigration debate.
The issue hits home in Berks County, one of three locations in the country that plays host to a family residential center that detains people seeking asylum, or, after being denied, awaiting deportation.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, called the Berks County Residential Center, is in Bern Township and owned by Berks County, which receives $1.3 million to run it.
The newfound attention on asylum raises questions: What is asylum? How do you get it? Who's applying for it?
The issue is complex and nuanced, but here are the basics:
Simply put, asylum is protection for refugees who have entered a new country.
The term refugee was defined at the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, which the U.S. and other nations signed. It refers a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a history of persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future.
Those seeking asylum do so because they feel they aren't safe in their home country. The five protected groups that are eligible to receive asylum are people who are fleeing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Congress incorporated the international definition of a refugee into the country's immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.
If a refugee is granted asylum, he or she is protected from being deported to their home country. They are allowed to legally work in the U.S., may apply for Social Security, may request permission to travel overseas and may petition to bring family members to the U.S.
They also are eligible for some benefits, including Medicaid and Refugee Medical Assistance.
After being in the U.S. for a year, an asylee can apply for a green card, which gives them permanent resident status. Four years after that, they may apply for citizenship.
There are two kinds of asylum seekers: affirmative and defensive.
An affirmative asylum seeker may already have a visa, residency or some other permission to be in the country. They also might be an undocumented immigrant already in the U.S. but not undergoing deportation proceedings.
A defensive asylum seeker, on the other hand, is someone who claims asylum after being caught in the country or crossing the border without the proper paperwork.
The affirmative process is looked at as non-adversarial, while the defensive process involves adversarial, court-like proceedings.
To apply for asylum affirmatively, a person must physically be in the U.S. A person cannot apply for asylum from another country before crossing the border onto American soil.
The asylum-seeker files an application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In general, the application must be filed within one year of the asylum-seeker entering the U.S.
An asylum officer reviews the application - which includes a background check and in-person interview - and determines whether to approve it. A supervisory asylum officer reviews the asylum officer's decision to ensure it is consistent with the law.
If the application is denied, the asylum-seeker may renew the request through the defensive process and appear before an immigration judge.
People who apply for asylum affirmatively are rarely detained by ICE during the asylum process.
Like an affirmative asylum seeker, those applying for asylum defensively also must be inside the U.S.
Defensive asylum-seekers are people undergoing removal proceedings, either after being caught crossing into the U.S. or captured inside the country. They file an application for asylum with the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the Department of Justice, and if it's deemed valid, are referred to immigration court.
Unlike in the criminal court system, the Executive Office for Immigration Review does not appoint attorneys to represent people in immigration court, regardless of whether they have the ability to pay.
People who present themselves to or are captured by U.S. officials crossing the border are subject to a process call expedited removal, which accelerates the speed at which they're deported. People undergoing that process who request asylum are put through the credible- or reasonable-fear screening process.
In those processes, the person seeking asylum is interviewed by an asylum officer who determines whether there's a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture if they're returned home.
The reasonable-fear threshold is a higher one, and must be proved for people who have illegally re-entered the U.S. after previously being deported or those going through expedited removal because they were convicted of certain crimes.
If an asylum officer feels there is credible or reasonable fear, the asylum-seeker is referred to immigration court. If the officer determines the asylum-seeker has failed to show credible or reasonable fear, that decision can be appealed and the asylum-seeker can appear before an immigration judge.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, a total of 68,842 credible-fear interviews were done. Of those, fear was established in 60,566. For reasonable-fear cases, 6,317 interviews were done, and fear was established in 3,018.
Individuals and families going through the defensive asylum process may be detained while their cases move through the system. Detainees at the Berks County Residential Center mostly fall into this category.
Overall, the asylum process can take years to conclude. Immigration courts have backlogs of asylum and deportation cases, meaning the process is often slow.
Carole Anne Donohoe, an immigration attorney with the Reading-based nonprofit Aldea-The People's Justice Center, said her team has worked on hundreds of asylum cases. Many, she said, takes years to complete.
One current client, she said, has a court date for his asylum case in 2020.
"That is no fault of applicants; it is the fault of the backlog in the courts," Donohoe said.
A long, hard journey
The journey from Central America can be a harrowing, mentally and physically draining journey, according to immigrants who have shared their stories.
Four mothers who were detained in the Berks center in Bern Township for two years told the Reading Eagle in 2016 that their journeys from Honduras and El Salvador were arduous.
And two sisters who came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors and now live in Berks County, told of the hardships they were willing endure as young girls to get to the United States.
"When we were walking through the desert we ran out of water," one sister said. "But we had some tuna left and we were so thirsty, we drank the tuna juice as water."
Aside from interviews with asylum officers, held after the journey is made, tackling the application can be daunting.
The I-589 form is 12 pages long, with 14 pages of instructions.
Along with the normal government form boxes to complete, such as name and address and date of birth, it includes long-form questions. Asylum seekers are asked to describe any past harm or mistreatment they suffered or any fear they have of those if they return to their home country. There are long-form questions about torture, about persecuted groups you may be a part of and about any harm you may have caused others in the past.
And then, for those applying for asylum defensively, there's immigration court. There, an asylum-seeker must plead his or her case to an immigration judge, who will determine if their story and evidence warrant protection from deportation.
Donohoe contends that regardless of whether the asylum-seeker is detained, proving they have grounds for asylum is difficult and only becoming more difficult under the Trump administration.
"It is not as easy as saying, 'Yeah, I'm afraid to go back,' " Donohoe said. "They have to prove persecution under the five protected groups."
Change in policy
And the Trump administration announced last month that it will no longer recognize domestic violence and gang violence as grounds for asylum, she added.
Essentially, people must prove that they will be killed if they return to their country of origin, which can be exceedingly difficult depending on the case, Donohoe said.
"If you are in detention, how do you get in touch with your relatives living in the hills of Guatemala to fax you the death certificate of your brother and it is an hour walk just for them to get to the fax machine?" Donohoe said. "And how can you provide a police report if you are being persecuted by police?"
Aside from police reports, death certificates and affidavits, expert witnesses can help an asylum-seeker's case. Those experts may include psychologists who can speak about the immigrant's trauma or other experts to speak about current conditions in the country or region the immigrant is fleeing.
Arguments and the asylum-seeker's testimony will be picked apart by government attorneys, who point out inconsistencies or ask confusing questions about the asylum seeker's most traumatic experiences, Donohoe said.
"Not all, but the government attorneys can be heartless," Donohoe said. "They will ask things like, 'So, you were only raped once' or say, 'Rape isn't persecution.' Really disgusting things."
"They are asking someone to recount their most traumatizing experiences, that may have happened a few years ago by the time they are in court," Donohoe added. "They have to be highly detailed and not have any inconsistencies."
Testimony for those who have been detained can be considered by some to be made under duress, Donohoe argued.
The examination will have an added layer of difficulty when using interpreters, especially when the immigrant primarily speaks an indigenous language.
"The interpreter's words are taken as verbatim," Donohoe said.
Immigration judges hold asylum-seekers' fates in their hands, making the final decision on whether to grant asylum.
Some judges ask a lot of questions and, Donohoe said, there are some judges who, no matter the circumstances of the case, can be expected to deny asylum claims.
"Attorneys do not tell them the magic words they need to get asylum," Donohoe said. "There are no magic words; if we could coach them to win asylum, they would always win."
Donohoe said the current administration inaccurately portrays asylum as immigrants simply stating that they are afraid to return to their homes.
"No one leaves everything they know unless they have to," Donohoe said.
And for asylum-seekers who end up detained, like those at the Berks center, there's an extra hurdle.
Along with their initial interview, where they have to prove reasonable fear, they have a second interview with an asylum officer over the phone to meet the credible-fear threshold.
If the asylum officer believes a viable case exists, the detainee's case moves to immigration court. If the asylum officer does not find grounds, the officer's decision is quickly reviewed by an immigration judge, and the judge's decision - whether to proceed with deportation or immigration court - is final with no chance of appeal, according to Donohoe.
"This can mean life or death for these people," Donohoe said.
Who is seeking asylum
The number and makeup of asylum-seekers fluctuates, depending on what is happening elsewhere around the world.
Since 1980, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of refugees entering the U.S. peaked in 1980 at 207,116 and hit a low in 2002 of 26,785.
The number was in the triple digits each year from 1989 through 1994. And it was under 60,000 eight times.
In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was just below 85,000. That was up from about 70,000 each of the previous three years.
In recent years, many of those seeking asylum come from Central America.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, refugees from El Salvador were the largest number of asylum-seekers at 21,775. They were followed by Guatemalans at 17,555 and Hondurans at 16,676. Mexicans and Haitians rounded out the top five.
Among those granted asylum, more than half go through the affirmative process.
In 2016, 11,729 people were granted asylum through the affirmative process, while 8,726 defensive cases were approved. Since 1990, only twice - 2006 and 2007 - did more defensive cases get approved than affirmative.
People coming from China had the most asylum cases approved between October 2016 and September 2017, the most recent fiscal year for which data are available, with 4,485 granted. El Salvador was second at 2,157 granted and Guatemala was third with 1,949.
Who is seeking asylum?
The majority of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. over the past few years are from Central America.
People are fleeing crime and violence that has destabilized the region.
Here's the situation in the three countries that produced the most asylum-seekers in the U.S. between October 2016 and September 2017:
El Salvador: El Salvador was ravaged by a civil war in the 1980s that left about 70,000 dead.
Despite peace being established in 1992, the country remains divided. Violent “mara” street gangs — including the notorious MS-13 gang that formed in U.S. prisons and later spread to El Salvador — have spread fear and death throughout the country.
In 2016, El Salvador had the world's highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people), according to the most recent data available from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Guatemala: Guatemala is still trying to deal with fallout from its 36-year civil war.
Leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents battled the established government, which was back by the U.S. until 1996. More than 200,000 people, many of them civilians, were killed or disappeared during the conflict.
Despite the end of the war, violence has persisted in Guatemala. It is a major corridor for drug smuggling, with gangs and organized crime running rampant. In 2016, it ranked 10th in murders per 10,000 at at 27.3 per 10,000 population, according to the U.N.
Honduras: The history of Honduras is one of military rule, corruption, poverty and crime, leaving it as one of Central America's least developed and unstable countries.
Up until the mid-1980s, the military, supported by the U.S., dominated the government and fought off revolutionary movements.
Honduras is now rife with gang violence and drug wars. Extortion is commonplace, and the country is notorious for having a highest per-capita murder rate. In 2016, it ranked second at a rate of 56.5 per 10,000, according to the U.N.
Inequalities in wealth are high, with nearly half of the population living below the poverty line.
A foreign national who enters the U.S. illegally can be both convicted of a crime and held responsible for a civil violation under the U.S. immigration laws. Illegal entry also carries consequences for anyone who might later attempt to apply for a green card or other immigration benefit.
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