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Trump inherited a big surge in Central American asylum seekers

Here's the reality that greets President Trump's hard-line immigration promises: more people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were granted asylum in the U.S. than from any other nation except China in fiscal year 2016.

Data: Department of Homeland Security; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Between the lines: The uptick in immigrants from Central America began around 2014 due to rampant violence and gang activity in the area, Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told Axios. But these waves of immigration also have a snowball effect, she explained — because as Central Americans find asylum in the U.S., there's an incentive for family and friends to join them.

Of these asylum seekers, Meissner said there is a mix of those in desperate need of escape from the violence and danger back home, but there are also those who come with economic motivations as well.

How it works: Immigrants who would face serious danger or persecution in their home countries can apply for asylum in the U.S. either by turning themselves in to the border patrol (affirmative) or after being arrested for being in the U.S. illegally (defensive).

By the numbers:

  • The number of Mexicans granted asylum in the U.S. more than tripled between 2011 and 2016 — from 264 to 919.
  • The number of Guatemalans granted asylum grew from 434 to 1,949.
  • The number of Salvadorans granted asylum increased from 234 to 2,157.
  • And the number of Hondurans granted asylum grew from 117 to 1,505.
    • Note: The uptick for people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras was most dramatic in 2015.
  • There was a minor decrease in asylum grants from 2015 to 2016 overall. But there was also a drop in attempted border crossings and lower immigration levels as a whole, likely due to uncertainty surrounding immigration policies under Trump's presidency.

Why China? China consistently has a large number of asylum seekers because of the large population of the country and the one-child policy. China also does not accept anyone the U.S. is trying to deport, so there's no risk for Chinese immigrants applying and there is the possibility of a green card, Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney, told Axios.

Big picture: Following talk of a "caravan" of Central Americans making its way to the border — which has since faded — the Trump administration has been drawing attention to border security and the U.S.'s asylum policies.

  • One senior administration official on a call last week said that Congress should make it easier for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to deny asylum in appropriate cases.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions also drew attention to asylum seekers in a speech on Wednesday in New Mexico, accusing the Obama administration of releasing "large numbers of illegal aliens who illegally crossed our border, but who claimed that they were afraid to return home." 
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