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Breaking Down The Complexities In U.S. Migration Law

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to talk just a bit more about the legal issues surrounding migrants here, so we called Karen Tumlin. She's the legal director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. That's an immigrants' rights organization that engages in both litigation and policy advocacy. Karen Tumlin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KAREN TUMLIN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Is there a difference between people who are fleeing a civil war, as it's understood by the international community, or, in a case of Central America, the kind of high levels of violence which is not considered to be a war, but which is nevertheless very dangerous? Is there a legal distinction?

TUMLIN: Right. There absolutely is not, and I think that's the key piece to communicate. The United States, both under international law, but under our own domestic law - we have an obligation to accept individuals who are fleeing from persecution and who are facing potential death. And gang-based violence qualifies under U.S. asylum law to meet the criteria of persecution.

I think the key thing is, you know, we really understand the traditional battlefield that's going on in Syria right now. That's something that the public consciousness can very much relate to - war-torn country, innocent folks caught the crosshairs have to be let in, have to be resettled. But what is happening in Central America - you know, it's a different battlefield, and it's a gang-controlled battlefield.

MARTIN: But gang warfare does - gang warfare does have the same legal standing?

TUMLIN: Yes, in my view and in the view of the U.S. courts. It is harder to prove still than kind of a traditional political asylum claim, but it's absolutely recognized.

MARTIN: There was a moment in a European migrant crisis when the picture of a Syrian toddler's body washed up on the shore. And it just seemed to galvanize both attention and moral outrage around the world, including here in the U.S. I was wondering why you think that there does not seem to have been a similar response to the Central American children. And I wonder whether it's because there hasn't been a similar moment, a similarly bracing image, or you think there's something else.

TUMLIN: You know, I think we had both in the U.S. experience in the summer of 2014. There were photos that were leaked from one of the border patrol stations of kids and young children crammed tightly in a cell. And that triggered a great outpouring of support, and really, I think, that tapped into the U.S. traditional notions of really welcoming refugees. But on the other hand, you know, it was very jarring to watch the public demonstrations across Europe of welcoming Syrian refugees and be reminded that we had really ugly outburst of xenophobia, including protests in Southern California surrounding buses of unaccompanied minors who were being transported.

MARTIN: But both things have happened. I mean, things have happened that - the same has occurred in Europe, as well. And there have been groups that have welcomed migrants in this country, as well. I'm wondering is it a question of proximity - that you tend to be more sympathetic to the people at greater remove?

TUMLIN: I think proximity absolutely matters, and it's absolutely true that Europe is not acting as a monolith. You know, Hungary's response has been to build a wall, and they are bearing a huge brunt, obviously, of the influx. But it really is a question of zooming the lens out. What you're seeing Chancellor Merkel say in Europe is we all have to take on our fair share. It's not sufficient to let this be left to those who are closest in geography. And I would suggest that the same is true of North America - that we have to recognize there is, in fact, a regional problem going on and widespread violent - not only in El Salvador, but in Honduras and Guatemala right now, too.

MARTIN: What's the state of play? Do you feel that the system is working? Is it recovering? And it is important to note that you and the members of your organization are certainly advocates of a path to citizenship for those who are already here.

TUMLIN: You know, big picture - I obviously think that our status quo for immigration law is not where it should be. Looking just at the unaccompanied minors, a huge amount of them were coming to reunify with one or both of their parents who are already in the United States. And something that's really fundamental to me and to my organization is that U.S. immigration law needs to respect and protect keeping families together.

And so what we're looking at with respect to how we detain kids and families in this country - it's an absolute sea change. Having walked in those centers and being a mom myself, I have to tell you that there's an incredible guttural impact of walking into a huge cafeteria and seeing lines of high chairs. It's an incredibly difficult situation. It's not the highlight of American asylum policy.

MARTIN: Karen Tumlin is the legal director of the National Immigration Law Center's Los Angeles office. We reached her in Los Angeles. Karen Tumlin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TUMLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.