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Analysis: How the asylum process works, and how it needs to change

Luis Mancheno is an immigration attorney at The Bronx Defenders. He appears in the CBSN Originals documentary "Seeking Asylum: An Immigrant's Journey to America" (watch the video above). You can follow him on Twitter  @LuisFMancheno or on Facebook at Luis Mancheno


Lately, a steady stream of news has called attention to what is happening at our country's southern border and the policies being implemented by the Trump administration to deter asylum seekers from coming into the U.S.

Amidst this flood of information, a lot of misinformation has also spread. So it is important to set the record straight to understand how our asylum system currently works, why it is crucial to continue to receive asylum seekers in this country, and why we need to make sure they are treated fairly and humanely.

What is asylum?

Every year thousands of migrants arrive at the border seeking asylum, which is their right under our domestic and international law. Asylum is a synonym of refugee status that is used to refer to people who are seeking refuge at a country's border or when already inside of it. Since every human being has the right to seek asylum, people showing up at our border and asking for protection in our country are doing nothing less than following our laws. 

You might wonder why asylum seekers need protection. After all, countries are responsible for protecting the fundamental rights of their citizens. But when they are unable or unwilling to do so — often for political reasons or based on discrimination — people seeking asylum may suffer horrific forms of human rights violations that force them to leave their homes, their families and their communities and seek sanctuary in another country. 

"I was so scared for my life"

Try to imagine becoming so desperate and scared for your life or your family's that you decide you will run away, leaving everything behind. Let that sit with you for a second.

Yes, it would mean leaving your best friend, the stores you like, your kids' school, and even your favorite food. Where you are heading, you won't find the ingredients for comforting family recipes like mac and cheese or meatloaf. All that you will be able to carry with you would be a backpack, and maybe not even that, because it might be too heavy for the hundreds of miles you will have to walk or swim until you get to your destination. 

Parting from material things is the easiest part, however. Now, imagine heading to a country where they don't speak your language and where you suddenly feel like a toddler because you can only communicate with others through signs and sounds. That's what asylum seekers have to do when they flee to our country. 

That's what I did when I came to this country from Ecuador. I was so scared for my life that I left everything I loved behind. I never got to see my little sister graduate or the birth of my niece. I didn't get to spend the last year of my father's life with him and to this day, I continue to feel I don't speak English fluently. I sacrificed everything I had, everything I cared for, all in order to save my life.

After 10 years of living in my new country, I can finally say that I have a good group of friends and that I have created a new family of my own. However, there is not a day when I wonder what would have been of my life if I didn't need to leave. What would have been if somebody wouldn't have attempted to murder me because I am gay. I continue to pay the price for the safety I found here, but after all I am thankful that this country provided me with the opportunity to live, and not just live, but to live in my fullest version

Why should America help asylum seekers?

There are many reasons why. First, because why wouldn't we? If somebody needs our help so badly and we have the ability to do it, why shouldn't we extend our hand to our fellow human beings? 

Second, because it helps maintain our position of leadership in the world. Like in any neighborhood, our country has maintained for decades a position of respect and admiration from our neighbors. The same way that we respect, look up to, and even envy that neighbor who always has their garden perfectly kept, the U.S. has been that exemplary neighbor for decades. That position gives us leadership among our neighbors and allows us to set many of the standards of moral responsibility around the neighborhood, which in this case is the rest of the world. 

Third, and this is a tiny bit selfish but equally important: We do it because we never know when we will be next. Knock on wood so it never happens, but if the time comes that war erupts, violence emerges and our government is no longer able to protect us, then we want to make sure we will have the opportunity to go to other countries and find safety there.

What happens when you apply for asylum?

The hardships that asylum seekers face in order to reach safety do not end when they get to our border. That is only the beginning of a long and difficult process. 

They will be interviewed by many border patrol agents who will often threaten them, confuse them, and perhaps even falsify their answers in order to prevent them from continuing in the process. If strong enough to survive those first interrogatories, they will be interviewed by an asylum officer who will run a rough interview that emphasizes preventing fraud and often mistakenly determines that a person shouldn't receive asylum. 

This process alone often takes months, and during these months asylum seekers are kept in jail, even when they have not broken any laws. 

Starting a few months ago, fathers and mothers are being separated from their children during this process, no matter how young the children are. Months-old babies are taken away from their mothers and placed in detention centers, sometimes thousands of miles away, until their parents' cases are processed. Mothers scream and weep as their young ones are taken away from them.

Next step: Immigration court

If people survive this process and an asylum officer makes a positive determination — finding that they do, indeed, have a credible fear of persecution in their home country — then the asylum seekers face immigration court proceedings. 

There, most have to defend themselves since there is no public defense system for people fighting deportation. The likelihood of them prevailing is low and the process often takes years to resolve. At the end, because of lack of legal representation the majority of asylum seekers will lose and be deported back to the country they fled. 

To give you an idea, in 2017 over 30,000 applications for asylum were submitted and 62 percent of them were denied. Unfortunately, our system has repeatedly failed people with valid asylum claims. Some have even been murdered upon their return.

One asylum seeker with a valid claim deported to his or her death is one too many, and it constitutes a violation of international and domestic law. In my view, our system has to dramatically change to properly and humanely address the needs of our fellow human beings, comply with our obligations and show that we are a country of compassion.