Gang violence is a persistent problem for Mexican and Central American, Spanish-speaking individuals. This problem has caused an increase in the number of individuals applying for asylum. Blake (2012) states, “According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), from 2009 to 2011, the number of asylum applications from Mexico in the United States more than tripled.” An interpretation of the same report cites the reason for this increase in gang violence as the inability of Mexican and Central American infrastructure to accept the hundreds of thousands of individuals deported to Central America from 1998 to 2005 (Blake, 2012). Despite the apparent justification for granting asylum, many requests get denied. Only 1.1% of Mexican applications for asylum were accepted in 2011 (Blake, 2012). However, many asylum seekers remain undocumented in the United States. Therefore, non-profit organizations such as American Gateways arise to help this disadvantaged individuals.
The staff of American Gateways: Legal Services for New Americans (AG) provides legal assistance to immigrants who are navigating the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). In my capacity, I performed various administrative functions, as well as carried out translation and interpreter duties to aid the Spanish-speaking clients. I reported for duty on Fridays, during administrative days. On these days American Gateways was closed to the general public. The staff took this time to conduct staff meetings where the cases that had passed screening and intake were meted out amongst the attorneys. The staff meetings were also beneficial to the attorneys because they provided an opportunity for case review, where individuals could seek answers to the questions about their cases. It was my duty to issue service rejection letters to the prospective clients that AG did not have the resources to take.
In the USCIS, structural violence, or, the disadvantage that harms individuals as a result of a systemic social structure, has led to the social suffering experienced by the Spanish-speaking, Mexican and Central American populations. The USCIS exerts structural violence on the populations of immigrants that enter the immigration system by minimizing their chances at being accepted as legally-documented immigrants. According to Blake (2012), Central American and Mexican applicants are rarely approved, although there is merit to their asylum claims. A history of xenophobic racism seems to be at the root of this treatment of immigrants and continues to harm them. This is in addition to the fact that designation as an immigrant retains negative connotations in a nation where racism continues to evoke hostility and anti-foreigner sentiments. It is the concern of some that the Judicial system has recently been taking on a more adversarial role in its treatment of asylum-seeking cases. Attorneys at AG speculate that the results of this shift in treatment of immigrants could mean that larger numbers of refugees will be denied asylum in the United States and will be deported to home countries where violence will threaten their livelihoods.
For example, a woman who I will call Marta is a lesbian who was thrown over a bridge by two gang members and left for dead for her sexual orientation. The near-fatal injuries resulted in her loss of sight, but despite that, she will be detained after her recuperation until she can appear before a judge who will hear her case. Anti-foreigner sentiments that have flourished in the past persist. As evidence of the long tradition of anti-foreigner sentiments, one only has to look at the laws that, up until the 1960s, repressed African American communities in the U.S. The matter of structural violence is a social reality. There are marginalized populations who become disadvantaged when policy is shaped by the ethnocentric perceptions of those in the majority. How different is it to read todays signs “Seal the Borders. Stop the Invasion”?
During my participation in a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) clinic, a Honduran woman I will call “Lucinda” told me, “Over here, it’s nothing but suffering.” I was interpreting and preparing Honduran and El Salvadoran renewal applications so that they could retain their lawful designation after having been made eligible for TPS under U.S. law. She continued, “That’s why I told my family to stay in Honduras.” Lucinda speaks about suffering the second-class status for immigrants in the USCIS. Lucinda projected solemn acceptance of this view, as if the situation was as it was designed to be.
Many of these women, and their children, find themselves imprisoned in family detention centers. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (2007) reports that family detention facilities are “clearly… inappropriate and disturbing setting[s] in which to hold families.”. But because these families deal with “Aliens and Nationality”, they fall under title 8 of the U. S. Code. This means that although they are housed in former incarceration facilities, they are treated as recipients of civil law, not criminal law. Since there is no obligation to be provided a speedy trial, they can be detained for long periods of time. They are denied legal information about their cases, which make it necessary for organizations such as AG to provide Know Your Rights presentations. These facilities house families awaiting hearing.
The staff of AG works to alleviate the systemic suffering of these disenfranchised populations by offering their services at low-costs to the client. According to its mission statement, AG stands ready to honor its founders from 27 years ago and “provide legal service to children and families who are fleeing their homes in Central America”
- Blake, Jillian N. 2012. “Gang and Cartel Violence: A Reason To Grant Political Asylum from Mexico and Central America.” The Yale Law Journal Online 38, 31.
- Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and, C, & Lutheran Immigration and Refugee, S 2007, Locking Up Family Values: The Detention Of Immigrant Families, n.p.: Women’s Studies International, EBSCOhost