U.S. Should Not Abandon Leadership On Asylum

November 9, 2018

President Trump signed a proclamation on Friday that contains draconian restrictions on the rights of refugees seeking asylum in this country. The president’s action undermines a 50-year U.S. commitment to providing safe haven for those fleeing ethnic, religious or political persecution. The proclamation invokes “national security” concerns and responds to what the president calls the “overloading of our immigration and asylum system.” Under the new rules, immigrants who do not enter the country legally through official border crossings will be ineligible to apply for asylum regardless of the merits of their  cases. This action flies in the face of international and domestic law, which obliges the U.S. government to give individual asylum seekers the opportunity to show that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if they are forced to return to their home countries. More importantly, it is a betrayal of this country’s historic commitment to providing sanctuary to those most in need, those whom Emma Lazarus called “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The U.S. commitment to those seeking asylum was first formalized in 1968, when the United States ratified the core international treaty on this subject, the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. Twelve years later, Congress adopted the Refugee Act of 1980, with broad bipartisan support (I was involved in formulating a provision in that law that explicitly provides a right to asylum). The reasoning was simple. While countries like the United States have programs that screen refugee applicants abroad, as we did with Indochinese in the 1970s, others cannot avail themselves of those protections. Typically, these are people who are desperately fleeing life-threatening persecution at home, because of their religious beliefs, ethnicity or political opinions.  Since that law was adopted, it has offered a lifeline of protection to those fleeing genocide in places like Rwanda and Cambodia; extreme political persecution from dictatorial regimes in Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua or North Korea; and religious persecution, such as that suffered by Christians in the Middle East and China.  In a world where governments feel little obligation to abide by norms of decency or respect basic human rights, the right to seek asylum ensures that law-abiding countries like the United States will not forcibly return people to face severe persecution or even death.

The administration bases its ill-conceived actions on the premise that gutting the right to seek asylum will put an end to the stream of immigrants seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, including thousands fleeing poverty and strife in Central America. Border security has been a very real and serious challenge to U.S. immigration and border enforcement authorities for decades. It will continue to be an important priority in the future. Like every other nation, the United States has the right, indeed the obligation, to protect our borders and to make choices about who we decide to admit to this country. These are functions to which the U.S. government devotes tens of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The president’s alarmist language suggesting that we have lost control of our borders is simply not borne out by the facts. Net migration from Mexico to this country actually peaked in 2007. And while there has been a corresponding uptick in migration from Central America, the numbers are not vast. Applications for asylum have increased significantly in recent years—to more than 300,000—but authorities are adjudicating those cases and on average find about  20% of the claims have merit.  What this means is that while we face challenges in maintaining the integrity of our borders and in adjudicating asylum cases, these challenges do not constitute a crisis. U.S. immigration authorities can and should continue to carry out these important functions while we maintain our legal and moral obligation to protect the rights of refugees, including those who are in this country and seeking asylum.

The administration’s mean-spirited and unwarranted action on asylum needs to be seen in its broader context. Administration officials argue they are seeking to dismantle the asylum system because genuine refugees can apply for admission from abroad. But the administration is simultaneously undermining the overseas refugee admissions program as well. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the U.S. took only 22,000 refugees from around the world, the lowest number in 40 years. Two years ago, the U.S. admitted more than 84,000 refugees, almost four times that number. And because of the so-called travel ban, the U.S. took a total of fewer than 500 refugees from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, six countries where the humanitarian need is great and fears of extreme persecution urgent.

At a moment when the world is yearning for moral and political leadership from the United States, the administration’s dramatic abdication of responsibility with respect to refugees and asylum seekers is unwise and indefensible. The United States is a nation founded by immigrants, many of whom were themselves refugees fleeing religious persecution. It also is a country that was built on a legal framework, rooted in the Constitution, which established due process of law as a central tenet. The abandonment of a law-based approach to refugee protection betrays this history and flies in the face of our rule-of-law tradition. It must not be allowed to stand.


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