Being a single mother or witnessing a gang crime could be enough for Central American illegal immigrants to get on the path to asylum under guidance the Homeland Security Department issued last week, opening new ways for the surge of illegal immigrants to gain a legal foothold in the U.S.
The guidance, a 27-page training document from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says women who flee Central America because they fear being single heads of households can be deemed part of a targeted social group and can make claims of “credible fear” of being targeted in their home countries.
Likewise, victims of gang crimes, which are epidemic in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, can make the case that they fear retaliation — also proving a “credible fear” and earning a place on the pathway to getting asylum in the U.S. — according to the agency documents, which were obtained by the Judiciary Committees in both the House and Senate, and which suggest a creeping definition that could allow ever more people to claim a right to remain in the country.
“It is an evolving area of law,” Joseph E. Langlois, associate director of the refugee and asylum program at USCIS, told the Senate committee at a hearing Thursday.
Congressional critics, though, said the rules are more a rewrite than an evolution and predicted that they will make it possible for most of those who have arrived in the recent surge of illegal immigration from Central America to gain initial protected status.
“It changes the standards. It’s breathtaking in its liberalities in regard to what a refugee is,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, told Mr. Langlois.
The asylum system is supposed to protect people who are targeted because of “immutable characteristics” such as their race or religion, and who fear harm or death if they are forced to return to their home countries.
Asylum is not meant to be a safety valve for the world’s problems such as economic troubles or high crime rates, said administration critics who were shocked that the guidance suggested being a “female head of household” could qualify as a protected social group.
“That has no conceivable connection to persecution,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
She called the guidance “absurd” and said it amounts to a “unilateral rewriting of immigration laws.”
Ms. Vaughan also said the guidance serves as an “instruction handbook” for illegal immigrants to use all of the key phrases to be put on the asylum track.
The guidance offers several specific examples of cases in which those seeking to enter the country should be deemed asylum applicants, including a woman whose husband abandoned her and who received threats from a gang because she no longer lived with her husband.
USCIS said that is considered a clearly defined, immutable characteristic.
“Living without a male to head the household is fundamental: not something applicant should be required to change,” the USCIS guidance concluded in determining that such a person would be considered part of a protected social group on the basis of her living alone and the “‘machista’ cultural pattern” of Latin America where men father children and then abandon their families.
If the gang didn’t mention the woman’s living alone or being a single mother in its threats, though, then she wouldn’t qualify, the guidance said.
The World Bank has concluded that areas with high numbers of female-headed households in Central America have higher homicide rates, too — part of the immigration agency’s evidence.
In the crime witness or victim examples, USCIS said someone who reported a gang-related burglary and who was threatened afterward qualified as a member of a “cognizable” protected group. Even someone who didn’t report the crime, but whom a gang suspected of snitching, could gain asylum, the guidance said.
Capitol Hill Republicans were dismayed by the guidance.
“Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are exploiting our asylum system so that almost anyone arriving in the U.S. who claims asylum will likely be granted it,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “We have a generous asylum system, and rightfully so, but the Obama administration should not use it to provide those who do not fit the existing standards with a golden ticket to the United States.”
Asylum applies to humanitarian applications from within the U.S., and refugee applications are submitted from outside the country.
Both programs have come under scrutiny in recent years amid criticism that the standards have slipped and more people are abusing the system.
The family of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, were granted asylum a decade earlier, claiming fear of persecution as ethnic Chechens living in Kyrgyzstan.
More recently, many of the Central American illegal immigrant children traveling alone, and mothers traveling with their children, who make up the recent border surge have requested asylum, saying they are fleeing gang violence back home.
Under the asylum program, foreigners who reach the U.S. make an initial claim of credible fear of violence or persecution if they return to their home countries. USCIS makes an initial determination based on what is known as a “credible fear interview.”
Fear of generalized violence is not enough to qualify, but fearing violence as a result of being in a specific group is, officials said.
Asylum seekers who are deemed to have credible fear can be released from custody and allowed to be free in the U.S. They eventually go before an immigration or asylum judge for a final decision.