When cousins Walter and Gaspar came to the United States fleeing gang violence and widespread corruption in El Salvador, their fate was a sadly familiar one for many applying for asylum. The two men’s applications were denied and they were deported back to El Salvador. Once they were back home, Walter and Gaspar were taken from their beds and beaten for days by local police.

Walter and Gaspar were lucky. After experiencing extensive physical and psychological abuse in police custody, they were eventually released. But not everyone escapes dangerous police interrogations alive. A week ago, rights advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing the violence that many unsuccessful asylum applicants — much like Walter and Gaspar — often face when they are forced to return to their respective home countries after being denied asylum.

No one really monitors what happens when denied applicants are sent back to El Salvador, and HRW’s recent report aims to help “fill that gap.” When an immigrant applies for asylum, their case will be reviewed in front of an immigration judge. That one individual controls the difference between life and death for asylees. In many instances of asylum application denial, a judge will rule that the applicant cannot demonstrate they had a credible and well-founded fear of persecution or harm in their home country or that the applicant would be a significant national security risk to the U.S. Several of the cases in the HRW report call into question whether many of the deportations that result from denied applications are to blame for the deaths and injuries of asylum applicants upon returning to their countries of origin.

President Donald Trump has made his hardline stance on immigration a cornerstone of his political agenda as well as a crucial rallying cry for his base. While the president has attracted attention for the crude language he has used to describe immigrants, Trump himself directly regulates and oversees little of U.S. immigration policy. Instead, administrative agencies within the executive branch, such as the Department of Justice, carry out much of the political changes and intricacies of the legal immigration process. Still, Trump’s widely-discussed executive orders that have attempted to restrict immigration flows — such as announcing a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries or ending temporary protected status for Salvadorans, much to the protest of senior agency officials at the Department of State who strongly advised against the decision — are only the tip of the immigration iceberg. 

HRW’s recent report is powerful because it indicates some denied applications are dismissed all too easily. When establishing landmark decisions, immigration judges should be aware of the power they hold over vulnerable people and consider reports like HRW’s as evidence of the growing need for asylum approval.

The U.S.’s current asylum policy clearly endangers lives. Previous immigration decisions — such as Matter of AB-, which overturned protections for victims of domestic abuse or gender-based violence — should be revisited by immigration courts and reconsidered when used as legal precedent in cases for those trying to apply for asylum relief. 

It’s hard to grapple with the flaws in immigration policy when you aren’t an immigration judge or administrative agency official. While students at the University of Michigan can’t individually change the U.S.’s immigration policy, they can certainly show up to support a candidate who does in the Michigan primary in March and the presidential election in November. The remaining Democratic candidates have opinions about immigration that fall across the political spectrum, so it’s important for potential voters to be informed about what each of the candidates advocates for. Joe Biden’s plan for immigration, for example, is likely the most conservative of the remaining candidates, as it seeks to keep many current statutes concerning undocumented immigration in place and does not structurally change asylum policy. Protestors have been quick to point that out as well as express frustration regarding former President Barack Obama’s track record of deportations.

Candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Tom Steyer and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have all stated the need for improving asylum application reviews and eliminating or limiting family detention (Biden, Bloomberg and Klobuchar did not take a stance on asylum on either Politico’s or The Washington Post’s poll). The other candidates’ platforms would certainly be small victories in the larger fight for asylum applicants in the U.S., but important steps toward progress nonetheless.

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu. 

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