Migrant caravans highlight need for immigration reform

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An issue that has plagued the United States for decades, illegal immigration has proven to be a problem that, much like a leaky faucet, can only be ignored for so long before the drip-drip-drip turns into a full-on flood. 

Now, after years of “kicking the can down the road,” it seems the dam may be about to burst, as, for the second time in a year, thousands of migrants have decided to band together and march across Central America to the United States’ southern border and demand entry. But as these migrants draw closer and the country continues to grapple with this issue, questions about the nation’s immigration laws are being thrust to the forefront and local immigration lawyer Lisa Ruiz of Ruiz Law in Ponte Vedra Beach is helping to clear up some of the confusion.

“Our firm mostly concentrates on family-based immigration, and then we also do different types of humanitarian protections, which would include asylum, different visas for crime victims, so those are probably our forte,” Ruiz said. “We also do defense and removal proceedings, and we deal with the different agencies that are involved.” 

Addressing one way in which many migrants attempt to gain entry into the United States, claiming asylum, Ruiz broke down the requirements that individuals must meet in order to be granted asylum status.

“An asylee is basically a person who is here in the United States that’s requesting protection from the U.S. government,” she explained. “Their counterpart outside of the United States would be a refugee, but either one has to meet the definition of a refugee, which is that they must either prove that they have suffered past persecution, or that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five grounds, and that includes race, religion, nationality, political opinion and membership in a particular social group.”

Ruiz added that asylum cases are typically hard to win, stating, “It’s becoming increasingly more difficult, just because there’s a fear of opening the floodgates, I think, and becoming a safe haven for all the refugees in the world.”

President Donald Trump and members of his administration have raised that concern, holding that current asylum law facilitates illegal immigration by allowing migrants who may not necessarily have a legitimate claim to asylum to gain entry into the United States.

“The biggest loophole drawing illegal aliens to our borders is the use of fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry into our great country,” Trump said, addressing the media at the White House on Nov. 1. “An alien simply crosses the border illegally, finds a border patrol agent and, using well-coached language by lawyers and others … asserts the need for asylum and (is) often released into the United States and await(s) a lengthy court process.”

The reported total number of migrants to have marched in the now two caravans headed for the U.S. has varied, though the United Nations has placed the number at “up to 7,000 people or more.” Although Mexican authorities have reported that nearly 2,000 migrants have broken away to apply for asylum in Mexico, still others march on, and according to a report released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), more than 270 individuals among their number have criminal histories, including such crimes as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, sexual assault on a child and assault on a female. DHS also reported that the caravans are comprised of migrants not only from Central America, but also from such countries as Somalia, India, Haiti, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and Mexican officials have claimed to possess images showing many of the migrants preparing Molotov cocktails.

In an attempt to deter the migrants, the president has already deployed thousands of U.S. troops to the southwest border, announcing to the press on Oct. 31 that the total number could be end up being “anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000.” That decision, however, has received pushback from detractors such as former President Obama, who called the move a “political stunt” while campaigning for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams last Friday.

Trump has also received pushback from some of the migrants themselves, as 12 of them filed a class action lawsuit Nov. 1 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the president and various members of his administration, alleging in the complaint that their Fifth Amendment right to due process as asylum seekers was being violated.

Given that those migrants have yet to reach the United States to legally apply for asylum at a port of entry, some have questioned the legal standing they have to bring such a suit. While the lawsuit may be premature, however, according to Ruiz, the plaintiffs may in fact have a case once they arrive at the border.

“By law, they’re supposed to receive a preliminary screening,” she said. “And if they express that they have a fear to return to their country, then they have to have an interview with an asylum officer, who will then determine if they have a credible fear of returning.” 

Ruiz added that she personally feels America’s current immigration system incentivizes illegal immigration, given the fact that those who apply to immigrate here legally often wait decades before they can do so. 

“Everything is becoming more difficult,” she said. “Whether you want to bring in a professional from outside the United States or if you’re seeking refuge, it’s just getting more and more limited, and unfortunately, that’s what creates a black market.”

But whatever one’s personal opinion on how to address the issue of illegal immigration in the United States, one thing is becoming clearer to people on all sides of the debate: reform is needed, and soon.

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