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Mary Poole is featured in a short film by Starbuck's "Upstanders" series about ordinary people creating positive change in their communities. Poole helped launch Soft Landing Missoula, which supports refugees resettling in Missoula and does community outreach and education.

The tensions building near San Diego, with desperate families mostly from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S., rushing the border and being repelled by tear gas, are symptoms of a larger issue: How do we treat those who seek our protection fairly and humanely?

The word “asylum” comes from the Greek word meaning refuge, a place that is free from violence. From this definition, we see that “refugees” and “asylum seekers” can, in fact, be people in very similar circumstances, forced to seek refuge in two different ways — both legal under U.S. and international law.

Let’s consider two families. A single mother fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose children were born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, seeks and is granted refugee resettlement in the U.S. Another single mother, fleeing violence in Honduras along with her bone-weary children, is now in Tijuana awaiting a chance to claim asylum, after walking farther than from Miami to Missoula.

Soft Landing helps Missoula welcome refugees, who have been forced to flee their home countries, because they fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, those few who make it to our shores endure a years-long process, vetted to a fare-thee-well, mostly in dangerous and difficult refugee camps, even as their odds of reaching here have been lengthened by the administration’s throttling of admissions.

For most asylum seekers, the path is different. Under U.S. law, and in accordance with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people seeking asylum in the U.S. must claim that status while already in the U.S., although they are required to pass the very same test as refugees to claim a “credible fear” of violence in their home country. The perilous pathway to asylum today has become fraught with challenges. Beyond the tear gas, here are a few of the obstacles:

• Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ruled last June that victims of domestic and gang violence could not claim asylum, thus ending decades of protection for thousands of people, particularly from Central America.

• President Trump proclaimed more recently that the U.S. will deny asylum to persons who enter the U.S. between border crossings, despite law and practice to the contrary.

• Months-long processing backlogs will expose vulnerable people to crime and fraud if they wait in Mexico.

• If they make it to the U.S., the prospect of family separation and detention for an indefinite time while waiting for asylum is very real.

• In what’s known as “asylum roulette,” one’s fate is very much dependent on the individual immigration official.

• Finally, if asylum is not granted, there is the dangerous and often life-threatening prospect of being returned to the country from which one fled — a result that is also prohibited by international law.

Two families, two legal paths. How do we say that one family can enter but that another family cannot, or at least faces such enormous obstacles that it amounts to the same thing? We fail to see any meaningful distinction.

As with refugees, asylum seekers must be treated fairly, processed expeditiously and protected from violence. Please take action in support of asylum seekers and stand with nearly 70 million vulnerable people across the globe who face persecution, civil war, violence and other circumstances that have forced them to flee their homes — homes to which they most likely can never return.

Let the president and your elected representatives know how you feel. Let’s uphold our obligation to U.S. and international law while remaining a beacon of hope and opportunity!

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Mary Poole is the executive director of of Soft Landing Missoula. She writes on behalf of the Soft Landing Missoula board.

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