Asylum and Migration: Freedoms and July 4th

During this week when we honor the independence of the United States, I have to say that I have learned the real meaning of the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence through the eyes of refugees and asylum seekers.  That is why it is extremely troubling to see how far our nation has moved from defending these same rights for all people and is moving further and further toward isolationism and exclusionary policies.  The extreme polarization of public debates in and of itself is a form of extremism that dehumanizes persons.   

Case in point is the political discourse about the U.S.-Mexico border which does nothing to address the concerns of the people at the border or those living in the United States.  On June 4th, President Biden announced a new presidential order which closed down the U.S. border with Mexico yet again, this time based on how many people happen to show up on any given day.  This is not only counterproductive to any type of orderly processing, but also makes seeking asylum at the southern border nearly impossible.  

Why is this problematic? 

The U.S. affirms the right to seek asylum in our own laws.  That is the international right to ask another country to protect you when your own country is unwilling or unable to do so.  When a government responds by offering you that protection, we call it “granting asylum” or “granting refugee status.”   

Asylum as a legal matter sounds pretty straight forward, but it is more complicated in its application.  That’s because if you must leave your country due to a sudden change in circumstances (such as a war breaking out or being targeted by your government because of standing up for human and civil rights), it is unlikely that you can ask your government for a passport or wait around for a visa. In fact, there is no such thing as an “asylum visa.”  It is expected that you will have to travel without permission to do so. U.S. law requires that you ask for asylum on U.S. soil.  You must get here first. It is why when the formal ports of entry are blocked, people will walk up to places in between to get their feet on our precious soil where they can request asylum.   

People migrate for many reasons and often for a combination of reasons – to escape extreme poverty, to reunite with family, to start over after a natural disaster or the loss of property due to climate change such as droughts and severe flooding.  And here’s the thing:  you can be poor and flee persecution; you can lose your home due to a flood and be targeted for protesting government corruption.  It is impossible to know why someone is at the U.S. border without asking.  And it is very easy to wrongly turn someone away when you don’t ask the right questions. 

Now imagine that one of the reasons you left home was because of an extremely traumatic experience. Or perhaps something traumatic happened on your journey to the U.S.  When, where and how asylum seekers are interviewed matters. This is why asylum officers are specially trained in the law and interview techniques.  It is why whether you are interviewed inside an immigration prison, in a court room or in a simple interview room can impact the outcome.  (Yes, being interviewed while detained in a closed and repressive environment makes everything more difficult.)   

I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers since 1990 and have watched all the ups and downs of U.S. immigration policies as well as the current rise of international conflicts and internal strife that cause people to depart their home countries. Since 1996, asylum policy has repeatedly been held captive (literally and figuratively) to policies expected to act as deterrents.  Policies that make the treatment of asylum seekers so harsh as to try to scare them away.   These have included: arbitrary detention for weeks and even years, increased military presence, limiting appointments at ports of entry on any given day (known as metering), separation of family members, attaching criminal charges for non-criminal acts and closing the border.  Such tactics are predicated on the assumption that most people don’t deserve asylum or even deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 

The June 4th Executive Order is another attempt to bully people from asking for help.  Imagine if we applied this same approach to other people who need government aid.  What if instead of having state social service agencies to assist people who need food and housing assistance, they had to go to the police department who was responsible for carrying out an initial screening to decide whether or not they are really homeless or in poverty?  I imagine it could scare a lot of people away from asking for help, but it wouldn’t change their need for food or shelter.  And it would likely create the same pattern we see at the border – ever increasing requests for more law enforcement to handle additional responsibilities instead of funding and equipping the social service agencies to carry out their job. 

President Biden says these inhumane policies are to secure our border.  There is nothing secure in creating chaos and confusion.  There is nothing secure about sending people back to Mexico into regions controlled by organized crime where they face assaults, rape, kidnapping and murder.  This is not conjecture.  We know what happens because this isn’t the first time the U.S. Government has bounced people back to Mexico.  “Between January 21, 2021 and January 12, 2022, Human Rights First tracked at least 8,705 kidnappings, torture, rape, and other violent attacks on people blocked in or expelled to Mexico under the Biden administration.”1  These deterrence policies have not worked before.  They will not work now.  Like Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow before the unjust judge, asylum seekers do not give up. 

And what about the people at the border who find themselves in desperate situations that DO NOT qualify for asylum?  They are still deserving of humane treatment.  There have been a few efforts in recent years to provide alternative pathways to the U.S. that are worth further study and potential expansion.  U.S. presidents and the Congress have talked about the need to fix the broken immigration system since 2004!  We need serious reform that addresses both the U.S. need for immigrants and the reasons people are seeking admission.  And yet politicians find it more expedient to scapegoat immigrants for all of our problems than to engage in fact-based solutions. 

Moreover, how we treat people at the border doesn’t just impact those individuals.  When federal officials describe the border as out of control and migrants as people to be feared, it fuels the anti-immigrant sentiments across the entire country.  It is this same xenophobia that is used to justify the Texas SB4 “Show your Papers” law that would allow any and all law enforcement (including school police) to arrest someone they suspect has crossed the border without authorization.  And it doesn’t stop there.  This fear mongering has led directly to attacks on faith-based organizations that serve migrants and asylum seekers.  The Texas Attorney General has accused Annunciation House in El Paso of human trafficking.  Annunciation House is one of many faith-based shelters that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has supported for their humanitarian work.  There have been false accusations against Jewish organizations by members of Congress, hate mail and phone calls to migrant and refugee serving organizations, and other threats of violence.   

As we take time this week to celebrate with loved ones and give thanks for our many freedoms, I will be taking time to remember those who come to our shores believing in what we proclaim, in spite of all the signs to the contrary.  I will ask God for the perseverance to not give up on my siblings seeking safety at our borders.  And I will pray that our government, our churches and our communities can live up to that most essential declaration “that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” 

1 Human Rights First, A Shameful Record: Biden Administration’s Use of Trump Policies Endangers People Seeking Asylum, January 2022. 

Susan Krehbiel works as the Associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries to coordinate PC(USA) humanitarian response and advocacy on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants.  She coordinates PDA assistance and technical support to mid-councils and local task forces to equip congregations in their respective ministries.  She also works with other PC(USA) ministries and with ecumenical and interfaith partners to expand our capacity to serve refugees and other vulnerable migrants.

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