Muted Voices: Toward an Understanding of the U.S. Asylum Program at the Southwest Border

– Executive Summary –

The U.S. asylum program at the Southwest border is the locale of a dynamic, contentious crisis. The number of asylum seekers at the Mexico-U.S. border began to soar in 2014 as families fled from violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).[1] The asylum screening backlog grew by more than 777 percent, from 9,000 in fiscal year 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.[2] This crisis is compounded by mounting affirmative asylum cases at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and removal cases awaiting hearings in the U.S. immigration court system. Mainstream media and some politicians, especially forty-fifth U.S. President Donald Trump, drew attention to the surge at the border, cultivating a narrative of a “crisis,” characterized by migrants who were seeking to exploit “loopholes” in the asylum program so they could stay in America.[3] Meanwhile, critics argued that the real crisis was a humanitarian one, exacerbated by the Trump administration’s efforts to keep asylum seekers from their legal right to protection.[4]

When the Trump administration took office in January 2017, it responded to the Southwest border crisis with policy, procedural, and programmatic changes—including zero tolerance and family separation policies, along with Migrant Protection Protocols—which aim to deter asylum seekers from crossing the border.[5] Although these changes have reduced the number of migrants entering the United States, they have also added layers of bureaucracy that have handicapped the asylum program, overwhelmed staff, and inflicted cruelty on the migrants.[6] News from the Southwest border became increasingly alarming: separation of children, overcrowded facilities, deaths of migrants, staff suicides, and open rebellion among staff and detainees.[7] The U.S. asylum program’s overall quality and integrity began to diminish as its mission and objectives grew murkier, making the program more vulnerable to national security threats.

The asylum program at the Mexico-U.S. border is a complex ecosystem, diverse in processes and procedures, and in the people who live, work, and pass through it. Behind the headlines is a transient community of displaced people, border patrol agents, and USCIS officers who populate the U.S. asylum ecosystem; they intermingle, interact, and collide with each other and the natural and human-made structures and systems. While much of the inquiry into immigration and border security has focused on the programs, processes, and procedures, this research emphasizes the people. Their accounts of traversing through the asylum program, encountering and processing irregular entries, and interpreting procedures reveal how policies shape lives, and their voices offer a richer understanding of the homeland security issues at the border during this “crisis” period.[8] To identify, access, and hear the voices of these people, this thesis develops a concept it calls muted voices.

The thesis has three main chapters—bookended by an introductory chapter and a conclusion—which contain fictional narratives and historical background. The narratives follow a displaced Honduran youth seeking asylum at the Mexico-U.S. border, the U.S. Border Patrol agent he encounters, and the refugee officer who screens him for credible fear.[9] The background contextualizes these three individuals’ experiences and their interactions within history, society, and policies. By interweaving historical context and fictional perspectives based on facts and lived experiences, this thesis adds flesh and bones to the impact of policies and the daily choices individuals must make. The narratives and analysis present a holistic understanding of the border ecosystem and illuminate the everyday realities, struggles, and complexities of interactions at the border.

While the crisis at the border has no single, easy solution, this research produced some novel approaches to tackling the broader issues. For instance, the concept of muted voices—radical subjectivity—can challenge irrational populist notions and the mainstream media’s portrayal of immigrants. The way this thesis shares their stories alongside each other highlights the humanity in the crisis and breaks down the notion of the other, offering an ethical approach to the problems of polarization and the us-versus-them heuristics. The circumstances that push distressed individuals and families to flee to the United States are complex; because policy-makers have failed to decipher how migration functions, its evolving nature and changing patterns, its drivers, and how it builds on the past, the United States has misidentified points of intervention and missed opportunities for adaptation and mitigation. Thus, this thesis recommends that the United States must, initially, confront its past interventions and the unintended consequences of its domestic and foreign policies—a regional truth and reconciliation—to achieve true migration collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Northern Triangle of Central America, and Mexico. The United States must also rein in its border enforcement praxis of “bordering, ordering, and othering” and refine the role of border patrol agents.[10] Customs and Border Protection needs to confront the consequences of its practices, primarily the distancing that has produced and cultivated racist and xenophobic views and the emotional anguish that contributed to more than one hundred suicides among its staff in just twelve years.[11]

The research also recommends concrete steps the United States can immediately take to restore the asylum program to its efficient, effective, fair, and humane state. The United States must roll back the unreasonable and often cruel barriers used to deter asylum seekers from obtaining protection; it must cease relentlessly dialing up the level of bureaucracy and cruelty. The asylum program would also benefit from restoring the credible fear screening to its original intent: a quick assessment of admission into the asylum process. A related recommendation is to refer positive credible fear cases to the Asylum Division for affirmative adjudication. Finally, this thesis advocates for the reestablishment of the Central American Minors program for children with families in the United States. If policy-makers can reduce the number of asylum seekers at the Mexico-U.S. border, they can relieve the burden and stress on the Border Patrol and the U.S. asylum system. The interventions described in this thesis would allow USCIS to control the flow of migrants and ensure the United States operates judiciously within national and international laws. Ultimately, these interventions would remove the conditions that created many of the challenges plaguing the transient community that lives, works at, and crosses the border.

[1] Scott Latta, “Central American Migration Facts,” Mercy Corps, May 1, 2019,​articles/​quick-facts-central-american-migration.

[2] Doris Meissner, Faye Hipsman, and T. Alexander Aleinikoff, The U.S. Asylum System in Crisis: Charting a Way Forward (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2018), 11,​research/​us-asylum-system-crisis-charting-way-forward.

[3] See Donald J. Trump, “The Democrats should change the Loopholes and Asylum Laws so lives will be saved at our Southern Border…,” Twitter, June 2, 2019,​realdonaldtrump/​status/​1143948712684576768?lang=en; Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke, “Exclusive: New Training Document for Asylum Screenings Reflects Tougher U.S. Stance,” Reuters, May 4, 2019,​article/​us-usa-immigration-asylum-exclusive/​exclusive-new-training-document-for-asylum-screenings-reflects-tougher-u-s-stance-idUSKCN1SA0LG.

[4] Alan Bersin, Nate Bruggeman, and Ben Rohrbaugh, “Yes, There’s a Crisis on the Border. And It’s Trump’s Fault.,” POLITICO, April 5, 2019,​magazine/​story/​2019/​04/​05/​border-crisis-donald-trump-226573.

[5] Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter, Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2020),​research/​us-immigration-system-changes-trump-presidency.

[6] Office of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, “Shattered Refuge: A U.S. Senate Investigation into the Trump Administration’s Gutting of Asylum” (report, Office of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, 2019),​imo/​media/​doc/​SHATTERED%20REFUGE%20-%20A%20US%20Senate%20Investigation%20into%20the%20Trump%20Administration%20Gutting%20of%20Asylum.pdf.

[7] Office of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.

[8] The specific period covered in this thesis spans from 2016 to 2019.

[9] Individuals in the expedited removal process, who are seeking asylum, must establish that they have a credible fear of persecution or torture to have a hearing in front of a judge in immigration court.

[10] Henk van Houtum and Ton van Naerssen, “Bordering, Ordering and Othering,” Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 93, no. 2 (May 2002): 125–36,​10.1111/​1467-9663.00189.

[11] “CBP Employee Suicide Report: Data from 2007–Present,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, September 11, 2019,​documents/​6534877/​Suicide-Summary-20190911-1.pdf.

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