Michael Swartz / Jul. 26, 2019

Is Being Poor a Good Reason for Asylum?

Making money to build a bigger house back home doesn't fit the historic definition.

It’s become routine along our southern border — a “family” enters the United States declaring the need for the protection of asylum in our country. And while the normal definition of asylum comes from fleeing one nation’s war and strife to take refuge in another nation deemed to be more safe, these asylum seekers mostly aren’t fleeing a nation actively at war. Not only that, migrants are eschewing what would be considered a safe haven of Mexico in their quest to reach the United States.

For those who remember Guatemala as one of those Central American “banana republics” you learned about in school, it should be noted that its main export nowadays isn’t agricultural. Instead, it is — perhaps intentionally — exporting its population at an increasing rate. It’s reached the point that pockets of the nation — specifically, the medium-sized city of Joyubaj (population 100,000 and declining) — have laid claim to being the hometown of the second-largest number of U.S. deportees back to Guatemala, barely trailing the much larger national capital of Guatemala City.

But the lure toward “El Norte” is easy money from available work. Those who reach the United States send back remittances, and that source of funds now makes up 1/8 of the Guatemalan GDP. It’s made possible by wage rates in America where it takes a laborer, even one making minimum wage, a week to make what may take a month or more to earn back home. “The United States helped me more than the Guatemala government ever did,” said one 40-year-old worker, who despite being deported saved enough money in three years of working in the U.S. while awaiting deportation to return and build a palatial three-story home in his hometown of Todos Santos. He and his wife live in Guatemala, while their two teenage children now live with relatives in the United States.

Yet the traditional idea behind asylum wasn’t that of wanting to build a large house back in the homeland. While Central American nations have a reputation for instability, a recent survey claimed less than 1% leave Guatemala due to violence. But getting just one family member into America provides the golden ticket to relative prosperity, with younger members of the family pouring across our border, working for a few years, then returning home once the deportation orders become final to enjoy their newfound status.

This international American Dream has been made possible on the U.S. end by a lack of motivation to address the problem through tighter border security and stricter verification of the legal status of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who frequent the construction sites, restaurants, landscape companies, and poultry-processing plants around our nation. One party likes the potential pool of dependent voters, while a sector of the other loves the cheap labor that “does jobs Americans won’t do.”

And the clash between those interests and the Trump administration has led to the heated rhetoric about “concentration camps” along the border, not to mention the tragic drowning deaths of a father and daughter trying to circumvent the standard asylum process for purely economic reasons. Trump has also been stung by a string of judicial defeats, most recently as he tried to address the asylum question by the commonsense method of requiring these Guatemalan migrants to first seek asylum in Mexico (or another third country) rather than the United States, only receiving asylum here if they were turned down elsewhere. “This rule will decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States,” said Attorney General William Barr when the rules were announced earlier this month.

But in a different sort of forum shopping, the ink was barely dry on the new regulations when a judge appointed by Trump’s most recent predecessor stepped in to thwart the process. So the asylum games continue and the so-called “concentration camps” are stretched even further beyond capacity.

All this is the unfortunate byproduct of making immigration a political issue rather than a Rule of Law priority. Within the last decade, both political parties had control of both the White House and Congress, yet neither made any significant progress on addressing the issue. While it’s a really good thing the American economy is strong enough to indirectly help such far-flung locations as Joyubaj and Todos Santos, it could work a lot better if we had an orderly system to allow the laborers we need and the diplomacy to work with the nations in our hemisphere to improve their own conditions so they wouldn’t feel the need to export their people just to keep their rickety economic ships of state afloat. One shouldn’t need to come to America to make a Guatemalan Dream of home ownership and status come true.

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