Give Me Shelter
TIME Magazine|November 26 - December 03, 2018
Give Me Shelter

Tens of thousands of people cross the border every year in search of asylum in America. Who among them should get to stay?

Maya Rhodan

It is still dark out when Border Patrol agent Herman Rivera’s radio crackles to life. His fellow agents, posted nearby on levee roads above the Rio Grande, report movement along the border with Mexico in the dim predawn. As the first rays of sunlight creep across the horizon, the team bursts into action, charging down into the scrub, dodging bushes and ducking under low-hanging branches in pursuit of migrants. Helicopter blades whomp overhead. “I’ve got one over here,” an agent yells from a field where stalks of sugarcane tower over his head. “I’ve got two over here,” screams another. They emerge a beat later with a line of men in handcuffs. Elsewhere, agents discover four more migrants, three from China and one from Guatemala, hiding in thick underbrush.

But not all of those who come across the border with Mexico run or hide. Hours later, as the sun reaches its midday peak, Rivera stands overlooking the river, watching as two men climb into an inflatable raft and paddle toward the U.S. shore. He doesn’t call for backup—there will be no need to chase these two. They approach Rivera’s truck, smiling broadly. They are a father and son, both named Fredy, they explain. They’ve been traveling for 13 days from Nicaragua and say they can’t go back. In the simple words of those fleeing their homes in search of security—a language as old as human history itself—they ask for asylum in America.

For Rivera and the U.S. immigration system he serves, the Fredys pose a more complicated challenge than many of the others detained that morning. Those caught crossing the border in search of work, looking to reunite with family members or smuggling contraband face a legal process that is relatively swift and noncontroversial. In most cases, they’re arrested, listed for expedited deportation and sent back to their home country without fanfare. But as asylum seekers, families like Fredy and Fredy qualify for a fair hearing under a decades-old refugee law.

The number of asylum seekers has skyrocketed. In 2008, according to federal data, fewer than 5,000 people apprehended by border agents expressed fear of returning home, thereby triggering the asylum process. Ten years later, that number has soared to more than 97,000—a nearly 2,000% increase. The figure has doubled in the past two years alone, driven by the arrivals of families and unaccompanied minors.

Some immigration-rights advocates explain this uptick by pointing at world events—environmental devastation, gang activity and political volatility in much of Central America. They say that the U.S., a nation founded by religious refugees, is built on a proud tradition of sheltering those facing persecution and that we should make room for as many as we can, whatever the source of their fear.

President Donald Trump and many of his supporters see things differently. They argue that our asylum laws are being exploited, that the migrants who file for refugee status are only pretending to flee oppression as a way to sneak into the country through a legal back door. “[Asylum] is an escape hatch from the laws that Congress has passed regulating immigration,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lower immigration.

The Trump Administration is waging a policy war against asylum seekers. Its first big move was the family-separation policy that was designed to deter asylum-seeking families. In June, former Attorney General JeffSessions narrowed the U.S. asylum criteria to disqualify victims of gang or domestic violence. In October, the Trump Administration ordered thousands of active-duty troops to Texas, California and Arizona to confront a so-called caravan of Central Americans, including many likely asylum seekers, who are making their way by foot to the border. In November, Trump issued a new rule that will bar all migrants for 90 days from seeking asylum if they do not come through designated ports of entry.

The political drama has fueled a deeper, more unsettling debate that gets to the heart of what kind of a country America wants to be. On the right, immigration hard-liners promise to vanquish migrant “invaders,” while on the left, activists threaten, in a snowballing hashtag campaign, to #AbolishICE in its entirety, a reference to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Almost imperceptible beneath the shouting are two questions that—if the country were able to figure out how to answer them—could settle the fight: To whom should America give asylum, and how can we humanely and responsibly grant it to them, while denying it to others?

For now, those questions will be temporarily addressed in court and on the border. Immigrant-rights activists say Trump’s latest policy moves are not just cruel but illegal. A day after the White House announced the latest rule change, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to block it— the latest of many suits levied against the Administration on behalf of asylum seekers this year. And every morning, from Texas to California, border agents will scramble to keep up. “It doesn’t matter if we deploy a wall or a fence or bring in more helicopters—this group of people is turning themselves in to us,” says Manuel Padilla Jr., chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector and a 34-year veteran of the Border Patrol. “This situation is not sustainable.”

A SHORT DRIVE from Rivera’s post at the border, a stream of migrants, wearing GPS-tracking ankle bracelets, file into the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, which is run by the nonprofit Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas. This group of exhausted migrants is made up of family units, like the two Fredys, and all have sought asylum. Slumped into rows of blue plastic chairs and clutching bags emblazoned with the words DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, they are at the beginning of a long process—one that’s become vastly more complicated over the past 80 years.

Until the 1940s, the U.S. did not have a policy governing the admission of would-be refugees: federal laws didn’t distinguish between immigrants and asylum seekers. But after World War II left 7 million people uprooted in Europe, U.S. lawmakers were forced to act. In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, opening America’s immigration door to some 350,000 refugees from Europe over the next four years. In 1967, the U.S. signed the U.N. refugee protocols, voluntarily committing to protections for refugees.

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November 26 - December 03, 2018