U.S. seeing a surge in Central American asylum seekers

Article subtitle: 
With gang and drug violence growing in Central America, 'credible fear' applications to the U.S. have risen sharply. But critics fear fraud
Article author: 
Cindy Chang and Kate Linthicum
Article publisher: 
The Los Angeles Times
Article date: 
15 December 2013
Article category: 
National News
Article Body: 

He was 10 when the gangsters flung rocks through the windows, and 12 when they beat him black and blue. At 15, a gang member shot at him while he was shopping at a grocery store — and killed his cousin instead.

At 17, he left Honduras for the United States.

He applied for political asylum, telling a judge that if he returned home, the gang that had slain his father would kill him, too.

Now 20, working as a gardener and living with his mother and siblings in Los Angeles, the man is one of a growing number of Central Americans asking for asylum. His claim was denied, and lawyers from the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles are helping him appeal ...

In the last five years, "credible fear" applications at the border have increased sevenfold, from just under 5,000 to more than 36,000, driven largely by an influx from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala ...

"People used to think the only thing you could do was sneak across," said Judy London, directing attorney of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the Los Angeles pro bono law firm Public Counsel. "They've learned that you can just go up to a border agent and tell them you want asylum."

With the jump in asylum applications has come concerns about possible fraud and abuse ...

Most asylum applications are still made from inside the country, rather than by claiming credible fear at the border. People who are in the U.S. legally — on a tourist or business visa, for example — file "affirmative" applications, which have also increased, though not as rapidly as credible fear applications. Combined, the two categories have more than doubled in the last five years, exceeding 80,000 in fiscal year 2013 ...

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a more restrictive immigration system, said asylum should be limited to those fleeing repressive governments or genocide.

"Giving asylum to all kinds of people who are just using it as a path to a green card is not right," Krikorian said. "Only by keeping the bar high, so the only ones who get asylum are the ones who are really, really deserving, can it remain politically viable."

But immigration attorneys say the bar can be too high.

"It doesn't make sense to me why you have to have your feet amputated before you could qualify for asylum in the U.S.," said David Bennion, a Philadelphia immigration attorney. He is representing the Dream 30, a group of young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, recently returned to Mexico or Central America and have now filed for asylum ...