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Calls grow to consider border kids 'refugees'

As more evidence emerges that children arriving at the U.S border are fleeing horrific violence, lawmakers and advocates are starting to call it as they see it.

As more evidence emerges that the Central American children arriving at the U.S border are fleeing horrific violence, lawmakers and advocates are starting to call it as they see it.

“They are refugees,” Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, said on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “That's how we can start, by using the appropriate language.”

The seemingly small change in how the U.S. refers to the children -- as refugees rather than "illegal" immigrants -- could trigger a dramatic shift in how the government processes the thousands of young kids who have already crossed into the U.S. Instead of focusing on ways to speed up deportations of children fleeing from danger, human rights groups are hoping attention will turn toward granting children their due process rights in seeking asylum claims.

Advocates have insisted for weeks that the surge of unaccompanied minors at the border is a humanitarian and refugee emergency, not one rooted in the Obama administration’s immigration policies. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHRC) said it is witnessing extreme violence on the ground in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where the overwhelming majority of new arrivals have come from. Asylum claims from those three countries have skyrocketed 712% in the last five years, UNHCR said. And migrants aren’t just fleeing to the United States. Nicaragua has seen a 238% increase in asylum applications in the last year, suggesting that families are fleeing to anywhere they can go.

“We must remember that these children are refugees, and deportation can mean death for many of them,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, said in a statement. The group is hosting a vigil for unaccompanied children along the border in Texas Thursday to focus attention on the violence the kids are fleeing from.

The stories from migrants along the border are harrowing. Some accuse Guatemalan gangsters or drug lords of murdering men with impunity. Others describe sidestepping dead bodies on the streets of Honduras as routine. Most all say they had no choice but to leave.

After interviewing more than 400 children who successfully fled their home countries, the UNHCR found that almost 60% of children had legitimate claims to seek asylum in the United States. Most were escaping recruiting attempts by violent gangs who forced participation or threatened the entire families of children who refused. 

The White House has repeatedly said that the vast majority of the children currently swept up at the border do not meet the standards for asylum admissions. On Wednesday, President Obama said it was likely that most would be sent back to their countries.  

Children who do meet asylum criteria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said this week, will be sent through the proper legal channels to avoid being returned to harm’s way. But advocates warn that U.S. judges’ interpretations of asylum law don't always play out in the children’s favor.

To qualify for asylum, a child must prove they have been persecuted in the past, or risk further threats in the future over their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. It is up to a judge to use their discretion in each case to decide whether gang violence qualifies as persecution. The problem is then exacerbated when it’s a child who appears before an immigration court without full legal representation.

“Gang-related violence has been viewed through a lens that characterizes it as common crime,” explained Nancy Kelly, managing director at Harvard Law’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic, setting a high bar for those who have been persecuted by gangs. “And for a child who’s trying to go forward without an attorney, it’s next to impossible.”

The UNHCR released a set of guidelines for asylum applications, including standards for victims of organized violence, trafficking and even torture. And though the United States has adopted the international definition of asylum, advocates say judges can adopt more conservative interpretations of an applicant's experiences when considering the asylum standard.

“Their interpretation regarding gang and violence cases is really restrictive and does not meet protection guidelines set out by UNHCR,” Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights Women's Refugee Commission, told reporters in a phone conference Wednesday.

The focus on refugee and asylum applicants adds pressure on the White House, which has been mulling measures to speed up deportation proceedings for the children, many of whom crossed into the United States alone. President Obama last week requested nearly $4 billion in emergency funds from Congress to address the crisis, but later the White House notably omitted any provision in the proposal to roll back certain screening protections in order to expedite removals.

Republicans have largely used the crisis to rail against Obama and call for strengthened border security. But conservative voices are starting to split as some Republicans worry they may be driving away Hispanic voters if they are viewed as lacking compassion for threatened children. 

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement earlier this week that the Obama administration should be “cracking down on rampant asylum fraud.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry even floated conspiracy theories that the Obama administration may be complicit in an inside job to open the borders to thousands of immigrants. Other conservatives warn the crisis is a back-channel maneuver for the administration to offer “amnesty” to thousands of future Democrats.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Wednesday warned that if Republicans block the president's proposal to boost funding, the stunt could backfire ahead of the midterm elections. "If we do that, then we’re going to get blamed for perpetuating the problem," Graham told reporters. 

Ironically, it’s conservative firebrands like Glenn Beck who are running in the opposite direction. Beck will be visiting the Texas border next week to bring food, soccer balls and teddy bears for the children there. In the time since Beck announced the trip, the conservative TV and radio host has faced intense backlash from his own loyal following, a move he concedes could sink his career.

“I’ve never taken a position more deadly to my career than this — and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this,” he said this week.