In January, I had the opportunity to travel with four other Fort Lewis College faculty members to the US-Mexico Border in Tijuana to witness first-hand the devastating consequences of U.S. policies meant to deter asylum-seekers from seeking the protection that their own countries are either unable or unwilling to provide.
Since returning, I have repeatedly been asked the same questions. What is an asylum-seeker? How is an asylum-seeker different from a migrant or a refugee? What does U.S. law say about the process they must legally follow? Why don’t these people start seeking asylum before they leave on the long and dangerous journey to the United States?
While the term migrant refers to people living outside their country of origin, refugee is a legal designation reserved for those who have been forced to flee their country of origin due to persecution, war or violence. An asylum-seeker is a person who is seeking international protection from dangers in his or her country of origin, but whose legal claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. Following World War II, the international community created this legal designation for the people forced to flee the war and committed to protecting the rights of such people, especially the right not to be returned to the place where their lives are in jeopardy.
In 1968, the U.S. joined the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, making a commitment to protect refugees. The United States has adopted the international definition of refugee for use in our own system: “Any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
In 1980, a bipartisan act of Congress amended our existing immigration laws to admit and assist refugees. Given how partisan and polarized this issue is, it is striking to recall that less than 40 years ago, the act was passed by a vote of 85-0 in the Senate and 325-47 in the House.
As a result, any alien present in the U.S. or arriving at any official port of entry may apply for asylum regardless of how they arrived or their current immigration status is.
To initiate a claim for asylum an individual must be either in the U.S. or at a port of entry. In other words, it is not possible to apply for asylum from the country of origin. And the law explicitly states that individuals may initiate this process within one year of arrival in the U.S. regardless of how they arrived in the United States or what their current immigration status is. Those who argue that persons who entered the country illegally may not legally seek asylum have been misinformed about U.S. law.
Once an asylum claim has been initiated, the asylum-seeker undergoes a series of background and security checks before being interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer and/or an immigration judge who will determine whether the applicant meets the definition of a refugee. If asylum is granted, asylees will not be returned to their country of origin and will receive permission to live and work in the United States. They may apply for lawful permanent resident status (i.e. a “green card”) after one year, and for full U.S. citizenship after an additional four years.
When you look at the statements of then-members of Congress about their support for the 1980 Refugee Act, the message is one of prioritizing humanitarian protection concerns over political ideology. The sense at the time was that we have both a moral and a legal obligation to help those who arrive on our shores seeking protection from violence and persecution. If we are still committed to the protection of refugees, we should demand that U.S. law is followed by our government. Although our current asylum process is far from perfect, our willingness to help those whose governments have failed them is a source of great strength for the United States.
We should reach out to our representatives in Congress to urge that we improve the process of asylum seeking rather than stand by and watch the system be dismantled by polarized political interests.
Ruth Alminas is an assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College with an expertise in international relations. She lives in Durango.