In 2014, parents and children from Central America began arriving at the US-Mexico border in unprecedented numbers. Many were fleeing extreme gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Migrants told stories of being extorted at gunpoint, raped, kidnapped, and their families killed.  

Now, more than three years later, judges in overburdened courts are rendering their decisions in these asylum cases. Julia Preston, a contributing writer at The Marshall Project, says that even though many of the asylum claims may be legitimate, the cases end in deportation orders.

In Preston's article for The Marshall Project, and co-published by The Washington Post, she reports that Central American migrants are faring far worse than other groups in immigration court. By late January, the courts had granted asylum or otherwise allowed migrants to remain legally in this country in 3,792, or 11 percent, of those cases involving families. By contrast, in all asylum cases last year, 43 percent ended in approvals.

Preston found a number of factors at play, including how asylum law itself can present a problem. Migrants fleeing gang violence do not fit easily into the classic categories for asylum, which offers protection to people fearing persecution based on race, religion, nationality or politics. In some courts, lawyers have been able to argue that Central American migrants fit into a loosely defined fifth category of persecution in the law against members "of a particular social group." But some judges are not open to this interpretation. In one court in Charlotte, North Carolina, Preston found judges who saw asylum as a narrow opportunity and considered claims stemming from gang violence as inconsistent with the law.

Also, it is extremely difficult to make an asylum case without a lawyer and, as Preston points out, attorneys are in short supply. There is no right to government-paid counsel in US immigration courts. Also, Preston found lawyers in Charlotte discouraging immigrants from hiring them because the fee is high and the chances of winning are extremely low.

As a result, many families simply are not showing up to court. Some choose to stay away because they fear being deported directly from the courthouse. They take their chances and stay underground. When families do not show up to their hearings, judges can issue a deportation order in absentia. The order is similar to an arrest warrant, and US immigration agents can carry it out.

Read Preston's full story for The Marshall Project here.

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI