The American Asylum Morass

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

by Daniel Nardini

The case of 22-year old Celvyn Mejia Romero is far from being extra-ordinary. Forced to leave his native Honduras at age 10 because of a dispute with neighbors and gangs, he trekked all the way from Honduras to the United States. He applied for asylum under America’s laws. He has been waiting for a decision since. At first, his case was turned down, but then the three judges that turned him down reversed their decision and his case has been handed back to immigration. Whether he will be allowed to stay remains to be seen, but Romero’s case has dragged on for 12 years. Because of this he has now lived in the United States longer than in his native Honduras.

If one can say he has been living at all. For a good part of life American life, he was in the care of his mother who came before him, so she was the one taking care of him. However, Romero is barred from working or even receiving U.S. government benefits. The United States is the only First World country whose asylum law does not allow for those seeking asylum to work or receive any government benefits while their cases are being heard. For Romero it was not as big a deal since he was under-age so he could not have worked or needed government benefits in the first place. But what can an adult asylum seeker do if they need to make a living here? This is a question that remains unanswered, and worse it leaves those in legal limbo to know how to live—except maybe begging on the streets or being in the care of others.

Not being allowed to work or receive benefits is just among the many problems asylum seekers face. Another problem is trying to prove they might face persecution back in their homelands that would and has endangered their lives. The case of Romero is a good example. His neighbors called his family “Communists” and gang members threatened to kill Romero and his entire family for that reason. Yet by America’s asylum law this is not exactly “persecution” and this is why the initial ruling by the immigration judges was that Romero would not face any real danger back in Honduras since it was not government persecution nor persecution by a well-known group. His family and lawyers felt different, and this is why they have filed time after time evidence on why Romero should not be sent back—the neighbors and gangs that threatened him and his family are still there.

In fact, asylum procedures are so complicated in the United States that it is necessary for asylum applicants to hire a lawyer to navigate through this morass. Theoretically, the waiting time should be no more than 180 days, but there are cases that go on for months and even years like that of Romero. One of the most important necessities of immigration reform will be to overhaul the asylum process. One thing that has been forthcoming is an attempt by the U.S. government to change the part of the asylum allowing asylum seekers to be able to be able to work and receive government benefits while their cases are heard. This change, known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, was passed by the U.S Senate but was never passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. I hear too often from too many Republicans and Tea Party individuals that “illegals” should not receive any help or benefits from the U.S. government. But what about those who are applying for legal asylum in the United States? Must they be punished too?

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