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Advocates Perplexed By U.S. Response To Central American Migrants

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Refugee advocates said on Thursday the Obama administration is sending mixed signals to Central American migrants by deporting families who have fled to the United States while increasing resources in the crime-ridden region for asylum seekers.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Wednesday that the United States would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to expand opportunities for people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply for refugee status before coming to the United States.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently conducted raids in the United States on Central American families who had fled the region in an effort to deter others from doing the same.

“That frankly leaves us scratching our heads and leaves us wondering how the administration could be talking about the refugee resettlement issue in such different terms,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy organization for children who enter the U.S. immigration system alone.

Young said the families were not given due process before being deported.

The question of what claim Central Americans fleeing violence have to refugee status in the United States comes amid a polarized national debate about the U.S. immigration system.

Some congressional Republicans have said migrants, including refugees from Central America and the Middle East, could threaten public health and national security. More than 140 Democrats in the U.S. House wrote a letter to President Barack Obama condemning the deportation raids.

Refugee and immigration advocates said the administration’s plan to deport Central Americans from the United States while increasing opportunities for them to seek asylum from their own countries wrongfully assumes that those asking for asylum at the border are a threat.

The asylum application process, which can take two years, is unfeasible for families needing to flee violence quickly, said Jen Smyers, associate director of immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service.

Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the administration’s “border enforcement approach to this issue has been a mistake from the beginning.”

Young said the administration wanted to counter the perception that border is out of control but “I think what they’re going to find out is that the most dangerous political calculation is that the immigrant rights community … are now all unifying and speaking out in strong opposition to this new policy.”

(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

Christian Syrians Are Seeking Asylum

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — When Syrians showed up at a Texas border crossing twice in one week last month amid the national debate about screening Syrian refugees, some immigration officials and lawmakers became alarmed, afraid they might be Muslim terrorists.

Turns out, the first group of Syrians who arrived at the Laredo border crossing on Nov. 17 were Christian families fleeing persecution.

Now the two couples and their four children, as well as a third Christian family who arrived Nov. 20, fear they will not be released or reunited in time for the holidays, attorney Jonathan Ryan told the Los Angeles Times.

“There are some misunderstandings out there — that they attempted to illegally enter the country. They presented themselves at the port of entry. Everybody turned themselves in,” he said. “They did everything right in terms of asking for help. They’ve done everything they can to not only save their own lives but the lives of their families.”

The Department of Homeland Security has released statements saying the Syrians turned themselves in. After the third group arrived Nov. 20, “officers took the group into custody and, as a standard procedure, checked their identities against numerous law enforcement and national security related databases,” according to the department. “Records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals.”

Homeland Security officials said no further information would be released due to “privacy issues.”

Texas is among more than two dozen states where, after the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees settled, calling them a potential security risk.

It’s not clear how many Syrian asylum seekers have arrived at the southern border in recent months, as opposed to those attempting to enter the U.S. through other channels. The number of Syrians seeking asylum in the U.S. has risen in recent years.

Syrians filed 104 asylum cases this year as of June, almost twice as many as in 2010, according to immigration court records. In 2014, for the first time in recent years, Syrians were among the top 25 groups granted asylum in the U.S.

The Syrian women who arrived in Laredo last month have been held with their children at one south Texas immigrant detention center, the men at another. They are not allowed to visit or communicate by phone or letters, Ryan said.

The families traveled to the U.S. because they have relatives here and because they had been targeted for being Christian, Ryan said.

“As a group, they are under significant threat. We’re still exploring grounds for the asylum claim,” he said.

On Friday, Ryan met and talked via an Arabic interpreter with the two fathers in the Nov. 17 group and a third Christian Syrian who had arrived Nov. 20 with his wife, child and two other men.

“They seem to be in a state of kind of suspended shock,” Ryan said. “Their lips quiver at the slightest mention of their wives. You can see the pain in their eyes of that separation. They’re willing to undergo every background check, to submit to every step in this process. They’re just asking to be treated like every other immigrant who comes to this country and not be singled out simply because they come from Syria.”

Ryan said that the men seemed unaware of the national attention focused on Syrian migrants, and that they looked “perplexed” when he explained that people were connecting Syrians with the Paris attacks and that “the government thinks you’re a threat.”

The women and children passed asylum interviews, but the families were still denied release Friday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to what paperwork listed as “law enforcement interests or potential foreign policy consequences.”

“The question is why are they continuing to be held compared to other families we are seeing released without these additional hurdles,” said Ryan, executive director of RAICES, an immigrant legal advocacy group based in San Antonio.

Homeland Security did not immediately respond Friday to questions about the Syrian families.

Ryan said he was concerned that “we are seeing what happened this time last year: (ICE) generally opposing the release of people based on national origin.”

In February, a federal judge ruled that immigration officials could not categorically oppose the release of Central American immigrant mothers and children based on the argument that that they posed a threat to national security, using their detention to deter further migration.

Ryan said that he hoped to meet with the Syrian men again soon and to make progress in their families’ cases.

“Everybody has one shared hope,” he said. “To be reunited and freed for Christmas.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Masa Wawieh, 4, left, and Maram, 8, watch their father, Fouad Wawieh, make tea in a Pomona, Calif., motel where they are staying after arriving from Syria, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

 

‘The Wave Has Reached Us:’ EU Gropes For Answers To Migrant Surge

By Marton Dunai

ROSZKE, Hungary (Reuters) – A surge in migrants, many of them refugees from Syria, hit Hungary’s southern border on Tuesday, passing through gaps in an unfinished barrier to a Europe groping for answers to its worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

Nearing the end of a flight from war and poverty, they walked around or over coils of barbed wire strung out along Hungary’s 175-km (109-mile) frontier with Serbia, children hoisted on shoulders, bags in hand.

“The wave has definitely reached us now,” said Mark Kekesi, head of a migration NGO called MigSzol Szeged. “There have never been this many of them, and we expect this to continue for a while.”

The Balkans is in the grips of an unprecedented surge in migration fueled by war in Syria and instability across the Middle East.

More than 100,000 migrants have entered Hungary, part of Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel, this year en route to the more affluent countries of western and northern Europe. While still small in comparison with the record numbers on the move nearer conflict zones, the flow is increasing.

The influx into Hungary ticked up on Monday to its highest daily rate this year – 2,093. More were on their way, with an estimated 8,000 making their way through Serbia and 3,000 crossing from Greece into Macedonia every day.

Hungary demanded more money from the EU to alleviate the burden, saying the distribution of funds was “humiliating”. One senior European official said that, in the absence of action, “Europe has failed”.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, warned against expecting numbers to fall any time soon. “We do not see any end to the flow of people to come in the coming months,” said a spokeswoman.

HUNGARIAN FENCE

Even as the migrants entered, the Hungarian army was busy building a border fence to keep them out, bulldozers and heavy machinery shifting earth and erecting walls.

The fence is finished in parts, while in others there are coils of barbed wire easily negotiated by migrants who faced down stun grenades and tear gas in Macedonia last week.

One family of Kurds from Syria waited patiently for an army truck to pass, before one by one they scaled a padlocked gate in the fence, disappearing down a dirt road the other side.

“We have skills, we can survive anywhere,” 30-year-old Hassan, an IT engineer from Syria, said after walking across the border into Hungary. “We don’t just come to Europe to eat and sleep. We’re looking for safety. It’s better to walk across half of Europe than to stay in Syria.”

A record 50,000, many of them Syrians, reached Greek shores by boat from Turkey in July.

Greece, embroiled in a debilitating economic crisis, is ferrying them from overwhelmed islands to the mainland, from where they head north to Macedonia and points beyond.

Macedonia sealed its border to them last week, but gave up in the face of huge and determined crowds. Macedonia and Serbia are now moving them on as fast as they can.

The Lasta bus company in Belgrade said it had increased its daily departures to the northern Serbian town of Subotica near the Hungarian border from seven to 24.

The crisis is severely testing the unity of the 28-nation EU and fuelling anti-immigration sentiment.

Germany says it expects a record 800,000 asylum-seekers to arrive this year; protests in the eastern town of Heidenau, near Dresden, over the arrival of 250 asylum seekers turned violent over the weekend and police said they were investigating a suspected arson attack on a sports hall in the eastern state of Brandenburg where some 130 were due to be housed.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the influx would affect the country’s budget plans but that Europe’s biggest economy could cope.

‘SINKING SHIP’

Hungary, however, called for more money.

“Old member states have nicked the money from new members,” Janos Lazar, the chief of staff of Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, told the daily Magyar Hirlap newspaper.

“If we do not take meaningful steps, we will become a lifeboat that sinks beneath the weight of those clinging onto it,” he said, in what appeared to be a reference to the deaths of over 2,000 migrants this year trying to reach Europe on overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean.

Critics point out that the vast majority of migrants who enter Hungary do not linger, determined to reach the likes of Austria, Germany and Sweden where they join up with relatives and friends in search of work and security.

But Orban has taken a harder line than other EU leaders, saying such an influx carries risks of terrorism, crime and unemployment. He says the EU does not have a coherent solution, and also faces pressure at home from far-right opponents.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said Hungary’s share of a seven-year EU budget to 2020 for asylum, migration and policing was more than 85 million euros and Budapest’s request for 8 million euros more this year was being fast-tracked.

Hungary’s concerns about immigration via the Balkans would be addressed during a summit of regional leaders with senior Commission officials in Vienna on Thursday.

The Commission has made clear its disapproval of the Hungarian fence, with its Cold War echoes in ex-Communist eastern Europe, but Hungary faces no sanction for building it.

“Europe has failed. Europe has to get moving,” the deputy president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday. “So far, many member states have thought they can go it alone. That doesn’t work. We have to do it together.”

(Additional reporting by Reuters Television, Fatos Bytyci in PRESEVO, Serbia, Aleksandar Vasovic in BELGRADE, Alastair Macdonald in BRUSSELS, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA, Krisztina Than in BUDAPEST; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)

Photo: Syrian migrants sit in a bus to register in a camp after they crossed the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke, Hungary August 25, 2015. (REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh)

As End Of Russia Visa Approaches, Edward Snowden Seeks Extension

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Fugitive national security contractor Edward Snowden has filed the paperwork to extend his refuge in Russia as the July 31 expiration of his asylum grant approaches, his lawyer told Russian media on Wednesday.

Snowden has indicated in interviews during his yearlong stay in Russia that he would like to move on elsewhere or even come home to the United States if he could be assured of getting a fair trial on the espionage charges the U.S. Justice Department has filed against him.

But with little indication from Washington that any deal to repatriate him is in the offing, the 31-year-old fired by the National Security Agency last year after leaking reams of classified information has apparently hedged his bets and gotten a jump on the bureaucratic process of extending his Russian visa.

“We have filed documents to extend his stay on the territory of Russia,” attorney Anatoly Kucherena told the Interfax news agency.

Snowden was granted temporary asylum on Aug. 1 last year after being marooned for more than a month in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. He had arrived without a visa for Russia en route to a self-imposed exile in Cuba but was unable to travel on because his U.S. passport had been revoked.

Felony charges were filed against the NSA contractor after he revealed classified program files that showed massive surveillance of private citizens’ emails, phone calls and texts in pursuit of terrorists’ communications.

Snowden has said he violated his security clearance conditions to draw attention to the domestic snooping he believes is in violation of U.S. law. The practices he exposed through collaboration with a journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian included clandestine surveillance of millions of foreign citizens’ communications as well as Americans’. He took the stolen data files first to Hong Kong and then to Russia in his thwarted bid to escape to Latin America, raising concerns that Beijing and Moscow now have access to national security secrets.

Snowden’s revelations damaged U.S. relations with an array of foreign governments and sparked national debate on whether the pursuit of terror suspects has led to excessive intrusion into the personal lives of millions of people around the world. His grant of asylum in Russia has also added to the volume of irritations between Washington and Moscow, which are already divided over the war in Syria, human rights and more recently Russian aggression against Ukraine.

In a May interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Snowden said he missed the United States but worried that he would have little chance of getting a fair trial if he returned to face the three felony charges that have been filed against him, each carrying a 10-year prison term on conviction. He compared his situation with that of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who secretly photocopied and distributed the 7,000-page study that revealed the U.S. government had knowledge that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won.

But U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry retorted after the NBC interview that Snowden, unlike Ellsberg, has refused to take responsibility for his willful disclosure of U.S. intelligence.

“If this man is a patriot, he should stay in the United States and make his case,” Kerry said. “Edward Snowden is a coward, he is a traitor, and he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so.”

Snowden’s situation came into the news on Tuesday when it was disclosed that U.S. Secret Service agents had arrested a Russian computer hacker in the Maldives and transferred him to the U.S. territory of Guam, nearly 5,000 miles away, to face charges associated with the theft of retailers’ computer databases containing 600,000 consumers’ credit card information. Roman Seleznev, 30, was described by the Secret Service as “one of the world’s most prolific traffickers of stolen financial information.”

The suspect’s father, Russian lawmaker Valery Seleznev, told Russian media he suspected his son had been arrested on bogus charges to give the U.S. government someone to offer in trade for the extradition of Snowden.

Photo via AFP