This South Florida Priest Wants You To Understand Why Central Americans Are Seeking Asylum

Jun 24, 2018

In the past two months, the United States has taken more than 2,300 migrant children away from their parents as a result of the Trump Administration’s new "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

Following widespread outrage, President Trump issued an executive order last week stopping the practice of splitting up families crossing illegally into the U.S. to seek asylum. But the zero-tolerance policy of prosecuting all border crossers criminally remains in effect.

In the 1980s and 90s, many indigenous Mayans fled ethnic cleansing and a brutal civil war in Guatemala. They sought asylum in the United States. Thousands settled in Palm Beach County.

Father Frank O'Loughlin is the co-founder of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth and has been working with the immigrant community in Palm Beach County for more than three decades. He recently spoke with WLRN’s Peter Haden about what’s causing record numbers of Central Americans to seek asylum in the U.S. You can listen to the conversation or read highlights from it below. 

O’LOUGHLIN: For the ordinary person, their experience is this: There are extortionists in all the communities now. There is no rule of law. And if you're recognized as a family that has been getting remittances from the United States…

WLRN: These are families with loved ones here in the United States sending money back to relatives in their home country?

Right. And very often it's a mother who maybe had a couple of babies and then realized she was never going to be able to take care of them and came up here, leaving her children to be raised by her own mother or her sister. And that's what she does. She lives here in the United States. Working almost like a slave. 

Central American migrants make a perilous journey crossing Mexico atop a freight train known as "la Bestia" (the Beast). July 2008.
Credit Peter Haden

There are mothers around here who for ten or 12 years, all they've ever done is send the money back to raise their children. And then one day the grandmother, or the sister who is raising the kids, says that the extortionists moved in on us. And they’re levying a tax on us. And they're taking our money.

Why would an extortionist target them?

Extortionists can target them because they've been recognized as people with an income coming in from the United States. But they don't simply say, "We're here for the money." They say, "We're going to enjoy your daughter," or, "We're going to enjoy your son." And so people have to leave everything they know, grab the kids and head for the border.

So how does Uncle Sam greet that? How does he deal with that? How does a government that has announced its antagonisms toward immigrants deal with it?

What they do is they simply say, "You think those guys are bad? You think the narcos were bad? You'd think that the extortionists were a danger to your kids? Let me tell you, we’re a big danger to your kid. Because when we meet you at the border, we’re going to tear that child out of your arms and we're going to put that child into some kind of government custody."

And then, of course, what comes out of that is somebody standing before Congress testifying that they've lost how many ... 4,500 kids? That's supposed to create enough fear in people that they will stop thinking of asylum as an option.

Now, in law, these people have sound asylum claims.

People being terrorized for getting remittances?

Yes. Because those countries are not governed right now. The people who are governing these small towns and neighborhoods are the extortionists.

What countries are you talking about, Father Frank?

You can go all through Central America. Right now it's very bad in Guatemala, which is where a lot of our people come from. Honduras — dreadful. Tegucigalpa we see reported as the most dangerous city in the world. El Salvador. Those are the families we're meeting.

And what's the response they get?

Don't you dare come here because we're worse than they are.

You think they’re bad? We can show you bad.

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The Department of Justice did not reply to multiple WLRN requests for interviews.

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a ruling to narrow the types of asylum requests allowed, excluding gang violence and extortion.