Nov 28, 2019 12:00 PM

US joins in global movement to make asylum harder to obtain

Posted Nov 28, 2019 12:00 PM

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Nkeze wasn’t home when Cameroonian militants came knocking, probably to deliver their signature ultimatum to join their separatist movement or have his writing arm cut off.


The 24-year-old economics student escaped to Douala, the country’s largest city, only to learn that the government wanted to arrest him for participating in a university protest. He then flew to Ecuador and traveled through eight countries to the U.S. border with Mexico, including a trek through Panamanian jungle where he saw corpses and refugees crying for shelter, food and water.


In his quest to settle with relatives in Houston, Nkeze now faces a potentially insurmountable obstacle: a new American ban forbids anyone from applying for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they traveled through another country to get there.


“When you find yourself on U.S. soil, you are well-protected,” Nkeze said, sounding upbeat as he waited in Tijuana for a chance to make his case. “You are protected by human rights.” He spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that he be identified only by his last name due to safety concerns.


The U.S. is increasingly aligning itself with wealthy countries in Europe and elsewhere to make asylum a more distant prospect.

On Thursday, American authorities sent a Honduran man from El Paso, Texas, to Guatemala. It marked the first time the U.S. government directed an asylum-seeker back to that country under the new policy, which gave him an option to file a claim there. He decided against filing a claim and returned to Honduras, according to Guatemala’s foreign ministry.


Asylum was once almost an afterthought, until an unprecedented surge of migrants made the United States the world’s top destination in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The U.S. held its leading position last year, followed by Peru, Germany, France and Turkey.


Nearly half of the roughly 1 million cases in backlogged U.S. immigration courts are asylum claims, with most from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.


Trump has called asylum “a scam” and declared that the country is “full.” In nine months, the administration returned more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for their cases to wind through U.S. courts. Another asylum ban on anyone who crosses the border illegally from Mexico is temporarily blocked in court.

It’s unclear how the ban will be rolled out.


The U.S. Homeland Security Department did not comment on Thursday’s initial flight, which got a bare-bones announcement from Guatemala’s foreign ministry. The U.S. has struck agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that aim to send back asylum-seekers who pass through their countries, but the Central American nations are woefully unprepared to accept large numbers.

The U.N. Refugee Agency said Tuesday that the ban is at odds with international law and “could result in the transfer of highly vulnerable individuals to countries where they may face life-threatening dangers.”


Asylum is designed for people fleeing persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a social group. It isn’t intended for people who migrate for economic reasons, but many consider it their best hope of escaping poverty and violence.


The U.S. isn’t alone in asking other countries to block migrants. After about 1 million refugees traveled through Turkey and Greece to seek safety in Europe, the European Union agreed in 2016 to pay Turkey billions of euros to keep them in refugee camps.


The EU has also funded the Libyan Coast Guard to stop Africans from crossing the Mediterranean, where thousands have drowned. Libyan forces have kept refugees in squalid conditions and inflicted torture.

Since 2001, Australia has intermittently blocked boats from Asia and detained asylum-seekers on Christmas Island, a tiny Australian territory, or sent them to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, an island nation of 10,000 people. Australia pays detention costs.


The U.S. long resettled more refugees than any other country, raising its ceiling to 110,000 during President Barack Obama’s last year in office. That practice has been sharply curtailed since Trump took office, with the country planning to resettle no more than 18,000 refugees in 2020.


“There’s this race to the bottom around the world, and governments are looking to each other and trying to figure out what’s the harshest policy they can get away with,” said David FitzGerald, a sociology professor at University of California at San Diego and author of “Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum-seekers.”


Cameroonians hoping to follow Nkeze’s path face mounting obstacles. Ecuador, the main gateway from Europe, began requiring visas for Cameroonians and 10 other nationalities in August, including six in Africa. Under heavy pressure from Trump, Mexico is bottling up Cameroonians and other U.S.-bound asylum-seekers near its southern border with Guatemala.


Nkeze walked through Panama’s remote, mostly roadless Darien Gap in less than four days on his way to the U.S. After giving his tent and raincoat to a woman who was clinging to life, he slept on a stone and prayed for clear skies and morning light. Only about a dozen in his group of 40 men could keep up in a race to a refugee camp on the other side of the jungle.


When his 20-day transit permit in Mexico expired, Nkeze helped a friend at a Tijuana juice factory for a cut of his earnings and lived at a no-frills hotel in the city’s red-light district.


Even before the ban, asylum was difficult to get in the U.S. Judges granted only 21% of cases, or 13,248 out of 62,382, in the 2018 fiscal year. Nkeze can also ask for two variations of asylum, but they are even harder to obtain, with 3% succeeding under “withholding of removal” law and only 2% under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.


“They essentially want you to bring a note from your torturer before they are willing to let you stay in the U.S," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University.

Nkeze may have caught a break when a federal judge in San Diego ruled Tuesday that anyone who appeared at a U.S. border crossing before the ban was announced July 16 and waited for their names to be called should be exempt.


He waited for five months in Tijuana for his turn on a list of nearly 9,000 people seeking asylum at a San Diego border crossing.

When his name was finally called Nov. 12, he wore a Mexican flag pin on the chest of his jacket as Mexican authorities escorted him to U.S. border inspectors. He said it was a show of appreciation.

He was immediately taken into immigration custody and is being held in an Arizona detention center.

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Nov 28, 2019 12:00 PM
Vape debate: Are e-cigarettes wiping out teen smoking?

WASHINGTON (AP) — In almost any other year it would be hailed as a public health victory: The smoking rate among U.S. high schoolers took its biggest hit ever this year, federal figures show, falling to a new low.


Instead the milestone was relegated to a lone figure at the bottom of a government press release and went unremarked by anti-tobacco groups that have spent decades working to stamp out youth smoking.

It’s a new era in the tobacco wars — one in which the alarming rise of underage vaping has almost completely overshadowed a parallel drop in traditional smoking. And the pivotal question of whether electronic cigarettes are inadvertently helping to wipe out smoking among young people has become a polarizing topic: embraced by some experts, dismissed by others.


“Smoking is disappearing among young people and it’s a great public health triumph that we are failing to celebrate, much less even note,” says Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan's school of public health.

E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, the drug that makes tobacco addictive. They are generally considered less harmful than cancer-causing traditional cigarettes. But there is little long-term research on the health effects of vaping.

With one in four teenagers now using e-cigarettes, underage vaping is universally condemned, and the federal government considers it an epidemic.

But Warner and some other researchers believe recent trends continue to show vaping’s promise as a tool to steer millions of adults away from cigarette smoking, the nation’s leading cause of death.

That potential makes the case for keeping e-cigarettes readily accessible for adults — even if a certain level of teen use persists.

But that approach is a non-starter for many tobacco opponents.

“When adults make policy gains on the backs of children, that’s bad, and that’s what the argument boils down to here,” says Dave Dobbins, an attorney with the anti-tobacco nonprofit, Truth Initiative.

Even if e-cigarettes were responsible for the smoking decline among teenagers — which Dobbins says is unlikely — allowing young people to get hooked on vaping nicotine is not a solution.

“I don’t buy the argument that these things showed up and magically changed the world,” says Dobbins. Instead, he thinks the vaping industry has increasingly pursued young people as smoking has fallen out of fashion.

But no one disputes the decline.

The percentage of high schoolers who reported smoking fell to 5.8% in 2019 from the prior year, a 28% drop and the largest since the U.S. government began surveying teens, according to preliminary numbers released in September. The trend isn’t limited to one year or one survey.

A similar study conducted by the University of Michigan shows smoking among 12th graders has plummeted 50% since 2015, the largest drop of its kind in the survey’s 40-year history.

The smoking rate for adults is roughly 14% and has been falling slowly for decades.

The decline among teens has been seized upon by vaping proponents, who argue it undercuts the gravest argument against the nicotine-emitting devices: that they act as a “gateway” to traditional smoking.

That’s the conclusion of a number of short-term studies that followed young people and surveyed their use of tobacco and nicotine. The prestigious National Academies found “substantial evidence” for the gateway effect in a 2018 consensus paper. And the Food and Drug Administration even uses the concept as the tagline in its anti-vaping video ads: “Teens who vape are more likely to start smoking cigarettes.”

For now, experts on both sides acknowledge there is no definitive evidence linking e-cigarettes to the decline in youth smoking. The question is clouded by too many long-term trends and complicating variables. Teen smoking has been decreasing since the late 1990s and is influenced by government policies, public opinion, changing products and tobacco industry marketing.

But for researchers who believe vaping is benefiting public health, the falling numbers make one thing clear: E-cigarettes are not driving large numbers of young people to smoke. The numbers suggest the exact opposite.

"The key point here is that it seems we have seen a drastic reduction in smoking,” says Dr. David Levy, a tobacco researcher at Georgetown University. “That's clearly a good thing and it's not something that we want to mess with.”

The question of how to best regulate e-cigarettes remains unresolved in Washington. The Trump administration has recently backed away from an earlier plan to ban virtually all vaping flavors due to their appeal to teens. No deadline has been set for a new proposal or announcement.

Levy and others favor targeted approaches to curb youth use, such as raising the minimum purchase age to 21 nationwide. They oppose sweeping bans and restrictions, which could impact use by adult smokers.

In a paper last year, Levy, Warner and several colleagues estimated that smoking among 12th graders has fallen three times faster since an uptick of e-cigarette use around 2014, compared with the earlier long-term trend.

However, the authors did not conclude that e-cigarettes caused the decline and noted that it could have been influenced by other factors, such as anti-tobacco campaigns.

Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also emphasized that survey data cannot prove a cause and effect between vaping and smoking rates. Therefore, it’s impossible to know which teens avoided or quit smoking due to vaping, versus those who would never have picked up cigarettes anyway.

Additionally, the data suggest many of the estimated 5.3 million underage students who vape were never at risk to become smokers.

“So that reflects an on-ramp to nicotine use that we otherwise would not have had without e-cigarettes,” says King, a deputy director in CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health.

The CDC and other health experts warn that nicotine can harm parts of the developing brain that control learning, memory and mood in young people.

The vaping debate underscores a growing rift in the tobacco control field. For decades, advocates, regulators and researchers were united in a common fight against cigarettes, which cause cancer, heart disease, stroke and many other deadly diseases.

But views have diverged since the introduction of e-cigarettes and other alternative products. Some experts believe the most realistic approach is to shift smokers away from burning tobacco toward less-risky products.

On the other side are those who say there is no safe way to use tobacco or nicotine and quitting should be the goal.

With local, state and other authorities cracking down on e-cigarettes — particularly kid-friendly flavors — public sentiment has increasingly been turning against vaping. On Tuesday the influential American Medical Association called for a “total ban” on all e-cigarettes and vaping products.

Some longtime industry observers warn that vaping proponents may have missed their opportunity to benefit public health.

“The industry blew it,” said Dr. David Kessler, speaking at a recent conference for vaping and tobacco executives. Kessler served as FDA commissioner during the 1990s, when he tried unsuccessfully to assert authority over tobacco products. Congress did not grant the FDA that power until 2009.

Starting in May, all e-cigarettes will need to undergo FDA review. Only those that can demonstrate a benefit for U.S. public health will be permitted to stay on the market.

Some vaping companies expect to win the FDA’s endorsement, but Kessler noted: “I don’t see it.”

"You lost the trust of the American public when it comes to vaping and you've set back the issue decades," he said.

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