From 2006 to 2011, Colombians comprised 5.5% of U.S. asylum seekers, making it the fourth most frequent nationality to request the protection of the U.S. government. This article discusses statistics, strategy, and typical U.S. asylum claims from Colombia. To learn more about getting asylum in the United States, see Nolo’s section, “Asylum & Refugee Status.”
In the early 2000s, there was a surge of Colombian asylum grants as paramilitary conflicts raged and guerilla organizations such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were responsible for hundreds of thousands of human rights violations. The prolonged armed conflict in Colombia has resulted in international attention from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) and other human rights watchdog groups.
According to a 2010 UNCHR report, 3.3 million Colombians are internally displaced, the largest number in the world. Additionally, Colombians have sought refuge in South America, the U.S., and Europe during the last decade, fearing violent reprisals in their homeland. As a result nearly 6,000 Colombians were approved for U.S. asylum in 2002.
However, since then the number of asylum grants has steadily declined. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that 325 Colombian nationals who submitted an affirmative U.S. asylum application were granted asylee status in 2011. That is a large drop from the more than 2,000 affirmative applications approved in 2006. For asylum applications submitted defensively in removal proceedings, 213 of 547 applications in 2011 were eventually approved by immigration judges, a 39% approval rate.
Some Colombians have received refugee status in the U.S. as well. There were 46 Colombian refugee arrivals in 2011, with a range of 8 to 577 refugee arrivals for each of the last ten years.
The most commonly granted asylum petitions from Colombia are based on fear of persecution and violence from paramilitary groups based on social group or political opinion.
In their applications, many asylum seekers will claim that the government of Colombia is unwilling or unable to protect them from paramilitary and drug cartel violence. Amnesty International has commented that “the vast majority of non-combat politically motivated killings, ‘disappearances’, and cases of torture have been carried out by army-backed paramilitaries.” The U.S. Department of State’s 2011 Human Rights Report for Colombia documents atrocities committed by FARC and the People’s Liberation Army (ELN). Paramilitary groups have also engaged in with social cleansing operations in the cities, killing homeless children and other “undesirable” social groups.
There have also been grants of asylum for racial and ethnic minorities, such as Afro-Colombians and the indigenous population. The Presidential Program for Human Rights in Colombia noted that 71 murders of indigenous people occurred in 2011, with many reported incidents of FARC and ELN targeting this population. Colombian women who have been the victims of rape and domestic violence have also been able to gain asylum as a social group, as prosecution rates for these crimes are low.
As with all asylum applications, a common reason for denial is that the asylum officer or immigration judge does not find the applicant’s story to be “credible.” Although many valid asylum claims come from Colombia, there has been a recent surge of fraud in the community. In some cases, unscrupulous immigration consultants offer asylum applicants recycled stories to use in their applications.
Currently a public perception exists that despite continued paramilitary and drug-related violence in Colombia, the government is cracking down and attempting to control the insurgent groups. The U.S. has provided aid to assist in the implementation of Colombia’s National Consolidation Plan, which has employed counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions, increased the presence of law enforcement, and achieved some measure of human rights and judiciary reform.
In April 2012, the U.S. State Department reported that in Colombia since 2001, kidnappings and terrorist attacks have been reduced by 90% and homicides reduced by 45%. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has praised Colombia for its “remarkable, indeed heroic, transformation” and noted that it is “quickly becoming a lynchpin of security and prosperity in South America.” As a result of these comments, asylum officers and immigration officers often conclude that “changed circumstances” in Colombia now allow its citizens to safely return.
Ten years ago, when the paramilitary groups in Colombia were rampant, it was easy to make an asylum case. The Colombian government was helpless to stop the guerrillas from intimidating and persecuting its citizens, who were impelled to flee.
Because it is becoming more difficult to present a convincing Colombian case for U.S. asylum, you should consult with an experienced immigration attorney who can advise you as to your options. He or she can best advise you of the probability of success based on the information you provide and may be able to obtain helpful documentation that is specific to your case.
It will not be enough to submit country conditions reports along with your application. You will need to prove that you fear harm due to your race, religion, ethnic group, social group, or political opinion and not simply random acts of violence. Therefore, it is important for you to be as specific as possible when answering the questions on Form I-589, Application for Asylum and Withholding of Removal in order to present a strong and credible case. You will need to provide convincing evidence that you, your family members, or people similarly situated to you have been persecuted, such as police reports, newspaper articles or human rights reports with specific accounts of any threats or violence you have experienced, and medical records describing injuries you have suffered.
For example, If you are claiming persecution based on your political opinion (such as your membership in a political party that has been threatened by FARC) provide detailed records of your participation in political activities (such as membership cards, newspaper articles and photographs of any political events in which you have taken part, or other documents that identify you as a member). Be sure to include documents to prove your close relationship to individuals who have been harmed (marriage and birth certificates, family records, photographs with you and the individual pictured). Many applicants have significantly boosted their credibility by submitting corroborating evidence like described in the examples above.