Compassion for the Caravan

While Israel works to prevent a mob of violent invaders from breaching her southern border and spilling into the country, half a world away a very different group of people is seeking, in a very different way, to cross a very different southern border, that of our own United States.

At this writing, a total of 158 Central American migrants fleeing violence in their countries of origin — where corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence are rampant — have been allowed to cross into the U.S.

A so-called “caravan” of some 200 migrants, comprised of men, women and children, ended their 2,000-mile, month-long journey by foot and bus at the Tijuana-San Diego border, and are seeking asylum in the U.S. Those who were permitted to cross into the U.S. have begun the long process of proving to officials that they are who they say they are and that their lives were in fact in danger in their home countries.

The group originally numbered over a thousand, but the majority of the migrants decided to apply for asylum or refugee status in Mexico or elsewhere. Reports claim that approximately 60 more migrants are waiting in Mexico and hoping to continue to the U.S. to seek asylum.

The appearance of such groups at the Mexican-U.S. border, many don’t realize, is nothing new. For several years now, Central Americans seeking to flee violence in their countries have banded together each spring to cross into Mexico, some to stay there and some to take a chance on applying for asylum in the United States. They join in “caravans” for the safety of numbers and to attract attention to their plight.

Under international and U.S. law, asylum claims must be considered, and applicants, if approved, are allowed to stay in the country. It is up to immigration officials to determine whether an applicant for asylum is eligible for residency.

The process is daunting, though, beginning with a “credible fear” interview to determine if there is evidence that the applicant faces persecution or death in his or her home country. If the applicant passes that step, the next one is dealing with an immigration court system that can sometimes take years to reach a decision. Generally, asylum-seekers spend most, if not all, of their waiting time in facilities run by private prison companies contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Unlike criminal court, immigration courts do not guarantee people the right to an attorney. Those who cannot afford a lawyer or are unable to find pro-bono representation have to make their own case before an immigration judge. So for most, it is an uphill battle and success far from assured.

In fact, more than three-quarters of asylum-seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — the countries of origin of the current asylum seekers — who came before the court from 2011 to 2017 were rejected.

The processing of the current group has been slow, due to a shortage of immigration personnel. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered that U.S. attorneys and federal judges be sent to the southern border to deal with the new immigration cases.

Mr. Sessions, echoing concerns voiced by President Trump, stated, “We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border. People should wait their turn.”

The Department of Justice, moreover, filed criminal charges last week against 11 alleged members of the caravan.

But reputable news organizations have reported that the migrants are in fact patiently waiting their turn, and that the charges brought by the Justice Department were against individual illegal border-crossers unrelated to the “caravan.”

Fears that criminal elements and other undesirables entering the country by falsely claiming asylum are understandable. Particularly in our troubled times, foreigners can seem threatening to some.

But no evidence has emerged to indicate that any of the current Central American aspirants to U.S. residency are misstating their cases or tied to criminal activity. And the hurdles that need to be cleared by would-be immigrants are formidable. U.S immigration laws are demanding and strict, as well they should be at times like these.

But the bottom line is that families fleeing for their lives are rightly privileged by the laws of our country to apply for asylum, be processed, and, if found truthful, to be accepted for residence in the U.S.

That is true on its own merits. But American Jews in particular, so many of whom are here because of their recent forebears who were immigrants from foreign lands, should most keenly appreciate the need to not turn away families who are trying to escape mortal danger.