Dec 1 2013

Immigration’s Imaginary ‘Open Sesame’

Right-wing media’s incredible fear of asylum seekers

Mexican soldiers (cc photo: LWY)

Conservative media can’t believe immigrants would have a “credible fear” of persecution in Mexico, where tens of thousands have been killed in clashes between the military and drug cartels. (cc photo: LWY)

According to right-wing media outlets, the latest immigration threat comes in the form of a “flood” of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border.

The Wall Street Journal (10/17/13) published a front-page story on asylum seekers, focusing on applicants from Central America, who were presented as gaming the system and seeking asylum simply as “‘a speed bump’ on the way to absconding.” The Journal wrote that one Honduran applicant “played a card that illegal border crossers are using in record numbers: He asked for asylum.”

Under US immigration law, a noncitizen subject to deportation can ask for a hearing before an immigration judge to ask for asylum, providing evidence that they have a credible fear of persecution if they are returned to their country of origin. The Journal cited a rise in these “credible fear” claims: 27,546 in the fiscal year ended September 30, according to Department of Homeland Security data, up from 10,730 such cases in fiscal year 2012 and 3,273 in 2008.

As pointed out by Media Matters for America (8/12/13), using “credible fear” as a way to request asylum is not a new phenomenon. The “credible fear” criterion was added to US immigration law in 1996 over the objections of human rights advocates, who felt the new standard gave immigration officers too much discretion (New York Times, 4/19/96).

The origin of this latest wave of attacks on asylum seekers was a Phoenix Fox affiliate KSAZ TV report (8/10/13). In the report, an anonymous interviewee described “credible fear” as a “key word” to cross the border. The only named source is Peter Nunez, identified as a former US attorney for Southern California and “immigration expert”—making no mention of his current position as board chair for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, 2/09) as “part of a broad-based and well-planned effort to attack immigration in all forms.” Nunez called the credible fear claim a “loophole” that required an “emergency implementation that will stop this, or otherwise we will have thousands coming in.”

Fox News Channel used the story at least four times in one day (8/12/13) across a number of its national shows, including Fox & Friends and Special Report. (8/12/13) called credible fear claims the “keys to the castle,” reporting that the “overflow” of immigrants claiming asylum is so great that they are being placed in hotels and “being released around the country into different cities.” Fox News reporter William LaJeunesse announced that “critics call this an orchestrated sham” designed to overwhelm the system so that immigrants have to be released—despite the fact that, according to the reporter himself, 91 percent of those claims are denied.

In addition to Nunez, cited in the original KSAZ story, LaJeunesse quoted Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the Federa-tion for American Immigration Reform, which founded CIS: “All you have to say is you qualify for the Dream Act and/or you intend to apply, and they’re instructed by their higher-ups to simply turn these people loose, to set them free and let them pursue any path they want.” The SPLC describes the Federation as an anti-immigrant hate group with ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists.

The New York Daily News (8/11/13) picked up on the KSAZ story, suggesting that “credible fear” was “the new ‘Open Sesame’ for Mexican immigrants.”

The New York Times (8/18/13) attempted to temper the discourse, running an AP report pointing out that credible fear claims, according to the Department of Homeland Security, represent “a tiny portion of the millions of travelers who legally enter the country each year.” Moreover, very few of those applications are actually granted. Last fiscal year, 4,042 Mexicans sought asylum; only 9 percent were granted.

And while the total number of persons granted asylum in the United States increased from 24,873 in 2011 to 29,484 in 2012, Mexican and Central American nationals are not the most likely beneficiaries of this protection. According to Homeland Security figures (Office of Immigration Statistics, 4/13), a majority of grantees came from just four countries: China (34 percent), Egypt (10 percent), Ethiopia (4 percent) and Venezuela (4 percent).

What most of the right-wing media are missing is that the increase in requests for credible fear interviews might actually be based in a credible fear of violence. An NBC Latino post (10/22/13) cited UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) statistics “which found that from 2007 to 2011 the number of homicides in Mexico tripled, corresponding with the increase in asylum applications in the United States.”

Maegan E. Ortiz is a freelance media maker and consultant based in Los Angeles.

Extra! December 2013