The Trump administration is ferreting out ways to impose a burdensome application fee on asylum seekers to discourage people fleeing for their lives from entering the United States. This would circumvent international law requiring nations to give asylum seekers a fair hearing. It harks back to a time when America imposed burdens on Jewish asylum seekers who were turned away and sent back to death camps in Nazi Germany.
The journey from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is dangerous and often undertaken after someone refuses to join a gang, and the gang retaliates by raping, torturing and murdering an entire family. When a person finally flees, criminals along the route extract money for safe passage. These criminals are called “coyotes” because they prey upon the weak and desperate. With the new proposed Trump fees, immigration advocates say the United States has become a coyote.
Clearly, hate is on the ascent in the United States, and immigration is an easy target of white nationalists who fear losing their privileged status. Hate groups hit a record high last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, with 1,020 operating nationwide spouting racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigration rhetoric that stokes fear and violence.
The role of Peoria and Central Illinois in the face of this rising crisis may seem unclear, but retired 10th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Richard Grawey has studied legal ramifications of immigration and envisions a potential option.
After retiring, Grawey worked with judicial programs administered by the International Human Rights Law Institute of Chicago funded by the U.S. Department of State. He worked with judges in Moldova, Ukraine, Egypt and Armenia on developing fair trial procedures and establishing educational and ethical requirements for judges.
He said the current situation at the U.S. border with Mexico poses a conflict with basic democratic American values and international law. All United Nations member states are governed by international law that allows people fleeing for their lives to claim asylum status when they enter another country.
Historically, people claiming persecution were allowed to remain in the United States while their claims were being considered by immigration authorities and the courts. Now, most of those claiming asylum are either sent to detention centers in the United States or sent back to Mexico. This makes it more difficult for them to establish their right for asylum.
Those sent back to Mexico to wait have almost no chance of securing legal assistance. That greatly diminishes their success. Asylum seekers fare better when they have an attorney, but the law does not require they be given one. Asylum hearings are difficult because witnesses can’t easily be called from the person’s home country.
“We are obligated under federal and international law as a member of the UN to give fair hearings to people seeking asylum,” Grawey said. “The present administration continues to remove and restrict the rights of those claiming asylum to the point that these rights have become meaningless.”
Trump has consistently tightened regulations for asylum. If someone has refused to join a gang in his home country, and that refusal may make him and his family a target for murder, that is no longer considered sufficient for asylum status in judicial circuits in the south and west. The question is still unresolved by the 7th District Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Asylum seekers are fleeing so they obviously have no legal papers. Coming across the border without papers is a federal misdemeanor or civil violation. Asylum seekers were previously given notice and ordered to appear in court.
“Under Obama, about 60 percent showed up for the hearing, but if they had a lawyer, 98 percent showed up for the hearing,” Grawey said. “That means many of the 40 percent without attorneys did not understand their duty to report or did not have the means to do so.”
Grawey said private detention centers cropping up along the border are a terrible idea.
“The quintessential function of government in a democracy is to be responsible for the judicial system,” he said. “The purpose of private detention centers is not to uphold the law but to make money. This creates an economic incentive to tighten the laws so more people are detained and incarcerated.”
Grawey can tick off anti-immigration assertions and label them false based on facts:
- There are no available jobs – false
- Immigrants take jobs from Americans – false
- Immigrants are a burden on social services – false
- We are a white, Christian country – false
- Immigrants will destroy our culture – false
“I look at immigrants as making our culture richer. Historically, we were a nation of immigrants,” Grawey said. “The other canard is that immigrants are more violent, and we need to fear them. The truth is the rate of felonies among the undocumented is lower than among native born.”
Given what he understands immigrants have brought to this country and given his belief in universal basic human rights, Grawey has focused on that period of many months when people await asylum hearings and languish in detention centers. He said a relatively new category of help called sponsorship could be used. Sponsorship does not have the legal risk of sanctuary. While one individual serves as a sponsor, responsibility can be shared by a network.
Rather than waiting in private detention centers, asylum seekers could be brought to central Illinois with a sponsor. There are ample buildings in the Peoria area that could provide housing.
Church congregations and social service agencies can collaborate and set up a network of people to assist the asylee. Some volunteers might assist with grocery shopping once a week. Some might tutor in English as a second language. Some might volunteer to provide transportation for court dates and hearings. Some might agree to provide dental and medical care. Some might be pro bono attorneys.
The sponsor is not legally liable if an asylum seeker fails to appear for a court date.
“Nothing like this exists in Central Illinois,” Grawey said. “People want to help but they don’t know how.”
Asylum seekers are eligible to apply for a work permit after five months and eligible to work after six months. That gives them an opportunity to establish a good work record that can be referenced during their asylum hearing.
According to the United Nations, there are 68.5 million people today, a historic, unprecedented high number, fleeing their homes seeking safety, shelter, food and jobs. The United States does not even appear near the top of a list of countries accepting the highest numbers of people.
“At what point does the level of injustice and suffering become unacceptable?” Grawey said, suggesting we have all looked to the past and convinced ourselves we’d be on the side of Oskar Schindler and the Kindertransport that arranged for thousands of Jewish children to be transported to families in England to escape Nazi Germany.
“Well, this is our time now. Someone needs our help,” Grawey said. “And they are here on our doorstep.”
For more information on sponsorship for asylum seekers go to: www.uua.org/loveresists/accompaniment.