This article is excerpted from the Fall/Winter edition of the Washington Memo, a publication of MCC's Washington Office. You can download the full publication here.
Current refugee and asylum laws emerged after World War II with a recognition that several countries, including the U.S., refused safe harbor to Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. According to U.S. and international law, an asylum seeker is someone who leaves their home country, moves to a second country and asks for safe refuge. A refugee is a person who flees to a second country before returning home, if conditions allow, or being resettled through the United Nations into a third country. Both go through an arduous screening process that can take years.
Sadly, these laws did not completely end the rejection of those seeking asylum in the U.S. In the late 20th century thousands of Haitian asylum seekers were detained, and many were forcibly returned to Haiti. More recently, the Obama administration responded to an influx of Central America asylum seekers in 2014 by opening new detention centers to hold families and sought ways to return families and unaccompanied children quickly, without the required court hearings.
Beginning in 2017, the Trump administration introduced a torrent of new policies aimed at reducing access to asylum in the U.S. They stepped up the system of “metering” to severely restrict the number of people who can request asylum at a border crossing each day. The Migrant Protection Protocols (“Remain in Mexico”) policy forces people to wait in Mexico for their court hearings, away from family members and without access to legal counsel. Both polices leave migrants in crowded shelters and camps, often in locations where they are at great risk of violence and kidnapping.
In the spring of 2018, thousands of families were forcibly separated when a new policy sent parents to detention centers and their children to shelters. Though the practice is less widespread now, some families continue to be separated. More recently, Asylum Cooperative Agreements have sent hundreds of asylum seekers to Central American countries where there are not structures in place to keep them safe.
Many asylum seekers are placed in detention centers upon arrival and sometimes languish there for years while their cases wind through immigration courts. Detention is a particularly cruel practice for those who have already experienced unimaginable trauma. Take the case of Pastor Steven Tendo who came to the U.S. seeking asylum but has been in detention for more than 18 months. Tendo was a victim of political persecution and torture in his home country, including the amputation of two of his fingers and the murder of several of his family members.
Despite having a sponsor who is willing to provide housing and support while he awaits a court ruling, immigration officials refuse to release Tendo. Due to inadequate treatment of his diabetes in detention, he is going blind. COVID-19 is spreading at the center where he is held. No one benefits from the detention of asylum seekers--except the private prison companies who profit from their confinement.
In March 2020, administration officials closed U.S. borders to nearly all asylum seekers, citing COVID-19. Though crossing the border is now allowed for work and commerce, asylum seekers are still deemed “nonessential” travelers, as if fleeing for one’s life is a nonessential activity.
Restoring asylum protections
Persecution and violence do not stop during a pandemic. Neither does our responsibility to provide safe refuge. Asylum seekers can and should be brought into the U.S. safely by following internationally recognized procedures. The vast majority have family in the U.S. with whom they can stay while they await their day in court. For others, churches and nonprofits stand ready to help.
Policies that restrict entry into the U.S. or send people to unsafe locations should immediately cease. This includes metering, MPP and the ACAs. In addition to recklessly endangering lives, such polices run contrary to U.S. asylum law. Furthermore, all asylum seekers should have a fair opportunity to present their case in court, lawyers should be provided for unaccompanied children and protections for victims of domestic violence and gang violence should be fully restored.
The inhumane practice of detaining asylum seekers must end. Alternatives to detention such as the Family Case Management Program ensure 99% of participants show up for court hearings at a fraction of the cost of detention. Another way to save money and help address the large backlogs in immigration courts is to create more legal avenues for people to come to the U.S. for work or to reunite with family.
The debate over asylum policy is fundamentally about whether the U.S. should be a place of safe harbor. Anabaptists and other immigrants who found safety in the U.S. enriched their new communities. The same is true for asylum seekers today. Providing safe refuge is a win-win proposal and the right thing to do. Those who historically benefitted from an open door should remember to keep the door open for the next group needing safe refuge.