President Donald Trump has painted a dark picture of the caravan of Central American migrants marching north toward the U.S., accusing participants of being criminals, “Middle Easterners” and political pawns paid off by Democratic operatives, all intent on illegally crossing the border.
But a quick look at another migrant caravan that reached the U.S. earlier this year paints an entirely different picture.
In that case, about 1,500 people started their journey in southern Mexico, but the caravan dwindled down to a few hundred by the time they reached the Mexican border with California in April. And according to federal data, most of them did exactly what they said they were going to do: presented themselves at U.S. ports of entry and applied for asylum.
According to data and congressional testimony from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, 401 members of that caravan requested asylum at ports of entry, a legal right enshrined in U.S. law and international conventions the U.S. is party to.
Federal officials interviewed those asylum-seekers and found 374 of them, or 93 percent, passed the first test on the path toward asylum, where they must demonstrate that they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country. That’s higher than the 76 percent approval rate that all asylum-seekers received in fiscal year 2018, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
More: Migrant caravan in Mexico: Human misery driving travelers toward better lives in U.S.
“That high rate of positive credible fears indicates that this is a population that is legitimately seeking refuge, seeking asylum,” said Alex Mensing, a coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders, a volunteer group that provided humanitarian aid and legal orientation to members of that caravan. It’s also assisted the current group of migrants — as many as 7,000 people, mostly from Honduras — trekking through southern Mexico.
Another 122 members of the spring caravan were apprehended trying to illegally enter the country. International conventions also allow for people who avoid inspection at a border to apply for asylum, but Citizenship and Immigration Services did not track the outcome of their asylum requests so it’s unknown how many of those passed their credible fear tests.
All migrants who pass the credible fear test are then allowed to formally apply for asylum, a difficult and lengthy process that is done either from immigration detention or after being released from custody if they have a U.S.-based sponsor, such as a relative.
Mensing said the majority of the spring caravan members, who mostly hail from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been released on varying levels of supervision, including some who were outfitted with ankle monitors.
Then comes the complicated part.
Department of Justice data through the first nine months of fiscal year 2018 shows that the majority of asylum-seekers who pass their credible fear test (85 percent) don’t end up filing a formal asylum application. The Trump administration has cited that practice as proof that the asylum system is being taken advantage of.
“The extremely low bar for establishing credible fear is ripe for fraud and abuse,” said Michael Bars, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “In other words, a credible fear referral doesn’t equal asylum status, but it does earn a free ticket into the U.S., allowing individuals to disappear into the interior to live and work illegally.”
Even for those who do submit an asylum application, only a small fraction (22 percent) ultimately get approved for asylum.
President Donald Trump talks to members of the media before walking across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, to board Marine One helicopter for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Houston.
President Donald Trump talks to members of the media before walking across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, to board Marine One helicopter for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Houston. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
The Department of Homeland Security says it is not tracking the outcome of asylum cases for the spring caravan members. And a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, which handles the asylum process, would not say whether its officials are tracking those cases.