The Forgotten Refugee Crisis at Our Doorstep

Can people fleeing extreme violence in Latin America seek asylum here?

While news of Syrian refugees has dominated headlines, most have forgotten about the steady stream of refugees seeking asylum in the United States from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Northern Triangle nations have endured consistent and profound degeneration of their daily lives as the governments there have largely buckled under pressure from extremely sophisticated, well armed, and widely dispersed organized crime groups. In recent years, these criminal entities have transformed into a combination of advanced and well-networked gangs (sometimes called “third generation gangs”), drug cartels (formalized commercial drug enterprises), and narco-traffickers (those working in the transportation of drugs). Together, these groups have grown wealthy, powerful, and highly organized due to the international drug trade that flows north through the region from the Andes of South America, destined for consumption in the United States and around the world. The international cocaine trade alone is valued at roughly $88 billion annually. In the Northern Triangle particularly, criminal gangs have successfully challenged the state for its monopoly on state-sanctioned violence. Governments in the region have been unable to protect ordinary citizens from gang-related violence. Adolescent boys as young as 11 are routinely picked out by gang members and forcibly recruited into joining the gang or assisting in drug transactions or other crimes, under the threat of torture or death to them or their family members.

As the governments in the Northern Triangle have been rendered largely ineffective by the chaos, other kinds of violence have been allowed to flourish. For example, reports of domestic violence, particularly against women and children, have increased 500% in recent years in Guatemala. There, indigenous women and children are doubly impacted by the lack of police protection and pervasive discrimination from Guatemalan society. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide, or the killing of women at least in part because they are women, in the world. In 2013, Honduras had the highest murder rate of any non-war time country in the world. As a result, innocent people, many times children, are forced to flee Honduras after witnessing extreme violence or murder in their communities. During a 10-month period in 2014, this tiny country witnessed the murder of 767 Honduran youths and children.

The Mexican government, under pressure from the United States to help prevent fleeing Central American refugees from coming here, has enacted extremely harsh policies of detaining men, women, and children in prison-like conditions without any kind of due process. Children are often detained in overcrowded conditions with non-relative adults. As a result, refugees from Central America are often forced to return to conditions where they were persecuted, a concept called refoulement under asylum law. Mexico, too, has struggled to contain increasingly rogue and indiscriminately violent drug cartels, with violence becoming more open and difficult for innocent people to avoid. Particularly parts of southern Mexico, where over-land drug routes from South America enter the country, have witnessed increasing violence in an atmosphere of impunity.

Over 50,000 children fled Central America to escape this violence during 2013 and 2014. The total number of people fleeing from the region grows higher when adults, many of them parents of fleeing children, are counted. Since 2014, the United States has responded with mass detention, particularly of women and children who seek asylum based on their fear of persecution in their home countries. These asylum seekers are routinely put in immigration detention facilities upon their arrival in the United States. Detention facilities are run by publicly traded, for-profit corporations and are largely indistinguishable from prison facilities. Women and children are forced to sleep with lights on all night, are processed in freezing cold rooms colloquially called the “ice-box”, and are constantly under the gaze and often-arbitrary rules of detention guards. Their access to legal counsel is extremely limited.

Under federal law, asylum seekers are not guaranteed an attorney to represent them in their asylum cases. Since most detention facilities are located hours away from large cities where pro bono and low-cost attorneys reside, access to legal services for detained asylum-seekers is extremely challenging. Those people who are unable to read and write in English are largely prevented from even filling out asylum applications, much less from preparing the rest of their cases, including writing their own declarations in support of their claims, collecting documentary proof of their claims from their home countries, identifying and arguing their best legal claims, and addressing any legal issues that they may have to overcome to win their cases. Those people who are unable to assert or win their asylum claims, no matter how valid they might be, are often railroaded through the asylum process or forced to remain in detention facilities for months or even years until they are deported back to the same places where they suffered persecution.

In sum, the United States often treats asylum seekers in a manner similar to how it treats the criminally condemned. In fact, in a paradigm that resembles the plea bargain in criminal court, many immigrants seeking sanctuary in the United States are pressured by the government to accept deportation or to not appeal adverse Immigration Court decisions, no matter the humanitarian factors presented.


A legal team (including our office) will travel to one of these mass detention centers in Dilley, Texas from December 5 to 12, 2015. Our fundaising effort was extremely successful (see our campaign website) and we are encouraged by the widespread support we received. We hope to empower the women and children in Dilley to be successful in their asylum claims by offering them free legal services and solace during the holiday season.