Answers to key questions about UN push to get US to treat young immigrants as refugees

Astrid Galvan / The Associated Press
July 9, 2014 03:24 AM

TUCSON, Ariz. - Pressure is mounting on the U.S. government to treat the thousands of children travelling alone from Central America and crossing into the U.S. as refugees.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told The Associated Press it hoped the U.S. and Mexico will consider the children refugees displaced by armed conflict, meaning they would not automatically be sent back to their home countries but receive international protection.

Many of the 50,000 young people who have arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied since last fall have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Here are some answers to questions about the complex process for would-be refugees and asylum seekers:

Q: HOW DOES THE U.S. HANDLE REFUGEES?

A: The U.S. government contracts with organizations that handle all the details of accepting a refugee from another country. For example, the International Rescue Committee receives refugees at airports, sets up apartments, finds them jobs, helps them register with social services and helps assimilate them into American life. That means 16 hours of class on American customs and traditions, as well as English-language courses. Refugees spend about six months being introduced to the U.S.

Q: HOW ARE PEOPLE WHO FLEE CONFLICT GRANTED REFUGEE STATUS?

A: The most common way to seek refugee status is by registering with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.S. takes in about 70,000 of the 100,000 refugees on the U.N. list annually. Potential refugees go through rigorous background checks.

Q: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A REFUGEE AND AN ASYLUM SEEKER?

A: An asylum seeker has entered the United States and seeks protection from returning to their home country. The person must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. The U.S. then determines whether the person should be granted asylum.

In contrast, a refugee has not yet entered the U.S. but also wants to flee persecution — such as a person fleeing violence in Syria and now living in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Q: WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF REFUGEES FROM LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRIES?

A: The U.S. has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the world since the 1970s following humanitarian crises in Cuba and other countries. In 1980, Congress passed laws addressing political asylum after about 125,000 Cubans fled to the U.S. via boat.

Brutal civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s also caused a large migration to the U.S. Those two countries still make up a large number of the immigrants crossing daily into Texas.

Q: CHILDREN AND FAMILIES SAY THEY ARE FLEEING GANG VIOLENCE. DOES THAT QUALIFY THEM FOR ASYLUM?

A: Many experts say while tens of thousands of children are fleeing Central America because of gang violence and criminal activity, most cannot prove they qualify for asylum after entering the U.S.

Immigration attorney David Simmons, who teaches at the University of Denver law school, said even being forced to join gangs, as many Central American kids claim, does not necessarily qualify as being persecuted.

"If you're a victim of gang violence, you haven't been singled out for political persecution," he said. "It may be a very good reason to get out of your country, but it's not political persecution."


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