New York Daily News: When the caravan gets here: What should happen under international law and America's moral obligation

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NY Daily News | When the caravan gets here: What should happen under international law and America's moral obligation
By Hasan Shafiqullah, Beth Krause and Ramya Ravishankar
October 26, 2018

Two weeks ago, hundreds of Hondurans began marching towards the United States. They have since grown to over 7,500 individuals from various Central American countries. Most are fleeing gang and domestic violence. For many of them, this dangerous journey — at least 2,000 miles long — is their only hope to escape the insecurities they face at home.

Proceeding openly and together as a caravan, instead of secretly and alone as many others do each year, allows these migrants to travel more safely. They are not at the mercy of smugglers or cartel-linked traffickers extorting high sums to transport them across inhospitable terrain. Nor are they likely to be captured and “disappeared” by Central American law enforcement.

Their journey is also a political statement, calling to attention the dire conditions in their native countries.

Currently, the caravan is several weeks away from the closest U.S. port of entry. It is unclear how many will stay and seek asylum in Mexico, how many may be deported from there back home, and how many will eventually reach the American border and face the uncertainties of the U.S. asylum process.

None of this has stopped immigration opponents in the United States from decrying the migrants as invaders. Leading the pack is President Trump, who has been using his Twitter foghorn to spread unsubstantiated claims about the caravan’s makeup and motives. Without proof, he has repeatedly suggested that Middle Eastern terrorists have infiltrated the group or that Democrats have paid its participants. Vice President Mike Pence has suggested without proof that their trip has been financed by left-wing governments like Venezuela.

The President has threatened to cut off foreign aid to Central American countries and Thursday said he was ordering at least 800 Army troops to the border.

The fearmongering obscures a serious question: What should happen when thousands of people arrive at our doorstep?

Despite what critics may say, it is perfectly legal for migrants to seek U.S. asylum protection even if they arrive at the border without papers. However, under the administration’s current strategy, this is increasingly impossible.

When 1,500 Central American migrants marched towards the United States in April 2018, only a few hundred reached the border. Most presented themselves at ports of entry and requested asylum; they have been awaiting the processing ever since. A number of others have been detained or deported, or became victims of the administration’s widely-condemned “zero tolerance” family separation policy.

Such outcomes violate the United States’ obligations under international law, as well as our own federal laws. We have signed onto and incorporated into our legal system several international treaties protecting the rights of migrants. This includes the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which allows migrants to submit an asylum application if they have experienced past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution in their home country.

The convention also directs countries not to “impose penalties on refugees who entered illegally in search of asylum if they present themselves without delay.” All migrants to the United States should be allowed to ask for a “credible fear” interview with U.S. asylum officers and be afforded an opportunity to pursue their asylum claims as family units.

Apart from its legal obligations, the United States also has a moral imperative to protect those escaping persecution. As a global, democratic power, our nation must protect asylum seekers from the perils they face in their home countries. It also must invest in Central American economies, strengthening their democratic institutions and promoting the rule of law. Not doing so will only further perpetuate the migration crisis.

Shafiqullah is attorney-in-charge of the immigration law unit at Legal Aid, where Ravishankar is a legal fellow; Krause is supervising attorney of the immigrant youth project.