Seeking Asylum under Trump

12 August 2018

I wrote several blog posts in 2007-2009 about immigration (mostly still relevant), but the recent news has me thinking about immigration again. Like many Americans, I've been horrified by much of what the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is doing under the Trump administration. So, I'm planning to write a new series of posts about immigration.

Some of the most horrifying practices of ICE right now are in the area of people applying for asylum as refugees. Under international law (primarily the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, to which the US is a party), a refugee is a person outside his or her country of residence who is unable or unwilling to return, due to a well-rounded fear of persecution (for one of several specific reasons that are part of the 1951 convention). These are people who have gotten so afraid for their lives that they have decided their only option is to flee the country they were born into -- not a decision that people take lightly, or would choose to do if they had any other option. People granted refugee status are supposed to have the right to not be returned to the place where their life or freedom would be threatened, and to move and reside wherever they want within the host country, with access to education, justice, and employment. And anyone is supposed to have the right to apply for asylum (refugee status) in a host country, and to be evaluated as to whether he or she qualifies. International law also states that an application for asylum should not be negatively affected by an applicant's irregular entry into the host country (e.g., illegal crossing, expired visa, etc.). (Reference: International Justice Resource Center)

One big problem with this right now is that a person seeking asylum in the US technically must either already be in the US, or must present themselves at a US border. Currently, as documented by Human Rights Watch, the Intercept, the Washington Post, and others, ICE officials are turning away Central American asylum seekers who are attempting to walk across bridges at the US-Mexico border, before they reach the actual border (where they would definitely have the legal right to apply for asylum). This not only seems immoral, but it is also almost certainly illegal under international law for ICE officials to do this -- and it's not the first time something like this has some up. For example, the US Supreme Court decided in 1993 that it was OK for the US to turn away and return Hatians who were seeking asylum by sea but had not yet reached US waters, but the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rejected this reasoning (reference: International Justice Resource Center).

Another problem is that the Trump administration is also making it more difficult for people who get to the US and apply to be approved as refugees. For instance, in the past, women who were victims of domestic violence, and who came from countries where domestic violence was endemic and perpetrators were effectively not prosecuted, were able to make successful asylum claims. But the Trump administration has reversed that policy, along with protections for victims of endemic gang violence. The Trump administration has also lowered quotas for how many refugees it will admit each year, and completely banned immigration (including refugees) from a set of mostly-Muslim countries.

We need to reverse these policies regarding refugees. We should be looking to help people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries, not putting up more barriers. And even if you do not care about that, studies have shown that the cost of refugee resettlement results in a large net economic benefit (see reports from Hamilton College and The Moderate Voice). The Trump administration is ignoring both our moral obligation to help refugees, and the economic benefit of resettling refugees, with its current policies.