Nicaragua, Asylum, and Stability.
Perhaps the most important issue facing the American immigration system is the status of Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UAC's. UAC's, in addition to other asylum seekers, have surged in recent years, mostly arriving from a three nation bloc often referred to as the "Northern Triangle": El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. El Salvador alone has accounted for a staggering amount of unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. Beginning in 2011, an incredible rise in UAC's from the triangle crested in 2014 at a staggering 51,705. 2015 saw a five fold increase of total asylum seekers- a number that includes both UAC's and others who wish to pursue an asylum claim- to 110,000. The reasons these migrants travel in seek of asylum are argued along predictable partisan fault lines. However, there is a general consensus among immigration analysts that the migration stems from a combination of violence and extreme poverty.
Whether or not these claims should merit the protection of asylum in the United States is not the point of this blog. As one might guess, as an immigration attorney who has worked with clients from the Triangle, I believe many of these asylum seekers have suffered persecution or fear persecution based on one of the five protected categories listed in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees: Race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Regardless of where you stand on the merit of these asylum claims, most agree that this mass migration is largely limited to the countries from the triangle. The rate of migration (and asylum seekers) drops considerably in countries to the south of the triangle- Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. While Costa Rica and to a lesser degree Panama enjoy comparatively lower rates of poverty than other Central American nations, Nicaragua certainly does not, with a smaller GDP per capita than El Salvador and Guatemala. But one characteristic that all three of these nations share is a significant lower crime rate. Unsurprisingly, these three nations also enjoy comparatively lower gang membership rates. Because of these lower rates of crime and gang membership, Nicaragua has earned a reputation for stability (at least from the outside) that many could not have predicted during the counter-revolution and instability of the 1990's.
That is, until now. Over the last week, reforms to the nations (already feeble) social security program have prompted its residents to take to the streets in a protest that quickly became violent. Despite living there for some time, I have been unable to flesh out any ulterior motives on behalf of the police force or the protestors. The protestors feel they are a grassroots movement, while President Ortega claims it is a right wing tool of U.S. influence. But two things are certainly clear: Protests prompted a violent response from police officers and protestors responded in kind. At last count at least 10 have been killed, and while the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega scuttled his reforms, protests have continued throughout the week attacking the administration for it’s attacks on democracy. For it’s part, The U.S. State Department responded with an advisory for American citizens to reconsider their trips to Nicaragua, particularly to parts of Managua and Northern autonomous regions.
The nation now stands at a crossroads. This is of course not unique, as many Latin American nations live on the cusp of instability. What does make the country unique is that it borders El Salvador and Honduras, with free movement afforded to citizens of each country. From an asylum law perspective, Nicaraguan political instability combined with the ease of which migrants could travel over their northern border could worsen the humanitarian crisis. Even if a political crisis doesn't prompt mass migration northward, the ensuing increase in crime (and the potential vacuum that could lead Salvadoran gangs to sniff out an opportunity for growth in a neighboring country) certainly would. The delicate political response from an already recalcitrant Trump administration would make matters even more complicated.
A potential worsening of the UAC and asylum seeker crisis is to say nothing of the United States interest in democracy, peace, and stability throughout the region. While it may be easy to concentrate on more pressing matters in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and even the Mexican Presidential election, Nicaragua is ignored at the immigration advocates peril.