Once again, so much for “Give me your tired, your poor … yearning to breathe free.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that this offer does not apply to hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries.

Removing Lady Justice’s blindfold, Sessions directed her to cast a jaundiced eye at women in dire straits. He then instructed immigration judges to discount physical or sexual violence at the hands of domestic abusers or gangs as a legitimate reason to grant refugee status.

To accomplish this, Sessions personally intervened to reverse an immigration appeals court’s decision granting asylum to an abused Salvadoran woman. His decree will affect hundreds of thousands of others, both women and men. Previous norms for evaluating whether migrants fit the formal definition for asylum will now be boiled down to Session’s own vision: “The prototypical refugee flees her home country because the government has persecuted her.” No one else need apply.

Sessions specifically excludes migrants which United Nations High Commission on Refugee specifically includes: People fleeing violence at the hands of gangs from whom their government is unable to protect them. In addition to the Salvadoran applicant in this case, the vast majority of Salvadorans fleeing their homeland fit this very description. So do thousands of others from Honduras and Guatemala

Why has the highest law-enforcement official in the U.S. intervened to disqualify refugee status for desperate migrants, mostly women and children, who are fleeing physical and sexual violence at home? It seems Sessions has lost patience with clogging up the immigration system with people he regards basically as lawbreakers: “Saying a few simple words — claiming a fear of return — is now transforming a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return into a prolonged legal process,” he complained.

Those few simple words “Help me, I fear being raped or killed if returned to my country” are ones to which immigration judges must now turn a deaf ear.

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In January a sister-city delegation from Bangor visited El Salvador to investigate the dynamics of forced migration. We met with several organizations, including the UNHCR, Cristosal, a human rights agency that researches migration, and Caritas, El Salvador’s Catholic Relief Agency. What we learned in a nutshell was this:

• Most emigrants’ flight from the country is impelled by gang violence.

• The gangs are so widespread in much of the country that there is no hiding from their reach.

• El Salvador has the highest female murder rate in the world. This statistic is largely driven by gang-related murder and human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

• Taken together, these facts mean that most of those fleeing the country, in fact, fit the formal definition of refugees in need of asylum.

Sessions, of course, will have none of that and is not constrained by universally recognized United Nations human rights standards. The United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (the company we keep — South Sudan and Somalia were the two other previous hold-outs).

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Since we are not bound by these international norms of humanitarian behavior, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have no obligation to provide a “best interest determination” to children at our borders. So with each passing week, administration officials are taking a peculiar version of “American exceptionalism” to new and disgraceful depths. What Homeland Security chief John Kelly denied was happening in March has three months later become established, publicized, calculated policy: Separating children from their parents at the border.

This flagrant human rights violation has now become the core feature of Session’s “zero tolerance”campaign.

Goodbye, Emma Lazarus; the current administration is blowing out the Statue’s golden lamp that has welcomed generations of the dispossessed to American shores. Instead, an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of shame is broadcasting a new and ugly message: “Think twice, you who would come seeking refuge. Watch now how we will rip your children from your arms.”

Central Americans already fleeing for their lives will of course not be deterred by such cruelty, which just adds to their ordeal. But when will the people of America wake up to what their country is becoming?

Dennis Chinoy volunteers with Power in Community Alliances and the Bangor City-Carasque, El Salvador Sister City Project. He was a member of its January 2018 delegation to El Salvador to study forced migration. He lives in Bangor.

Dennis Chinoy


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