Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Gang Persecution as Grounds for Asylum in the US

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Gang Persecution as Grounds for Asylum in the US

Article excerpt

A substantial group of Central American immigrants have been filing asylum cases in the USA based on fears of gang-based persecution.

Reflecting US preoccupations over the past decade, the debate over immigration there has generally been framed in terms of economics and security. The history and political climate surrounding US immigration policy make asylum cases based on fears of gang-based persecution notoriously difficult to win but recent changes might signal the beginnings of a more expansive humanitarian policy.

The US remains without an animating vision on immigration but President Obama's campaign platform - the last time the current administration set out a coherent view on immigration - mainly conceptualised immigrants as "undocumented workers" or as part of a "flow of illegal traffic" that must be regulated and stopped.

Daniel Sharp, legal director of the Central American Resource Center,1 says that the US government operates on the assumption that anyone coming from south of the border is seeking a better life economically. But, he estimates, half or more of the asylum cases being filed by Central American immigrants are related to street gangs, an observation that is unsurprising given the actual situation in many of these countries.

In 2007, a UN report presented the drastic problem of growing gang membership and influence. According to this report, Guatemala had 434 gangs with a total membership of 14,000, while in Honduras there were 112 gangs with 36,000 members. Gang membership per 100,000 people was calculated as: Belize 36, Panama 43, Costa Rica 62, Nicaragua 81, Guatemala 111, El Salvador 152 and Honduras 500. For Honduras this means that 5% of the entire male population aged 15-24 is a gang member.

In 2009 a US State Department report on Guatemala estimated that 3,000 children nationwide were involved in street gangs: "criminals often recruited street children for purposes of stealing, transporting contraband, prostitution, and illegal drug activities."2 The International Crisis Group released a report in 2010 noting that "Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals" and pointing out the effect of gangs on entire segments of the population: "Criminal organisations traffic in everything from illegal drugs to adopted babies, and street gangs extort [from] and terrorise entire neighbourhoods, often with the complicity of [the] authorities."3

Applicants for asylum include men and women who fear, and have been victims of, gang-based violence, young men targeted for recruitment, and former gang members. Taken together, their claims form a litany of miseries and fears that tend to follow a pattern - repeated threats and instances of brutality, family members disappeared or killed - that depicts their lives in these countries as imbued with terror and violence.

Some asylum cases that came to court in the US in 2010 include: a young Mayan who had protested about low wages in the sugarcane fields and had been threatened and beaten three separate times, during which one of his assailants said "the next time, we will kill you if you [have] not gone back to work"; a woman whose uncle's military connections led to her receiving threats; young men who had resisted gang recruitment and been threatened; and former gang members who had left and were afraid to return. All of these cases were denied.

One problem is the difficulty in establishing persecution. According to previous case law, fear of "general strife" is not by itself enough to make a case for asylum. One established precedent defines persecution as an "extreme concept . . . mere harassment does not amount to persecution."

Furthermore, even if persecution is shown to have occurred, applicants must show that it is based on one of five grounds: race, nationality, religion, political opinion and/or social group. Gang-based asylum cases are usually argued on the grounds of the last two, either where opposition to or refusal to join a gang is depicted as a political opinion or where young women and men are construed as a social group targeted for violence or recruitment by gangs. …

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