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Asylum In The U.S.: What’s Going On?

by Andrew Selee, President of the Migration Policy Institute

As denoted so well by Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, asylum policy has been a centerpiece of U.S. leadership for decades. Indeed, it has been a major part of the global architecture built after World War II to help protect those fleeing persecution in their home countries. Rooted in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, asylum is meant to provide protection to those who have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The U.S. has a long tradition of granting asylum to those fleeing repressive governments around the world. In recent years, the U.S. has expanded the understanding of asylum to include, at times, those who flee from criminal groups, if the local government is unwilling or unable to protect them.

While historically many asylum seekers have flown into the United States with a valid visa and then applied once they were in the country, over the years, a large number of Central Americans, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, have come to the U.S.-Mexico border and requested asylum. Most are fleeing from gangs and local drug lords that demand extortion payments, terrorize local communities, and forcibly recruit teenagers to join their ranks. There were around 100,000 credible fear interviews, the first step in an asylum process at the border, each year over the past two (fiscal) years, an exponential increase from previous years.

"The US has a long tradition of granting asylum to those fleeing repressive governments."

Many of these claims are legitimate, but increasingly many people who reached the border began to see asylum as a useful way to avoid deportation, since cases can take years to decide in U.S. immigration courts and those who apply can stay in the country legally while they are decided. There are many ways to fix this process in order to decide cases quickly and avoid misuse of the system, but the Trump administration has opted instead to reduce access to asylum at the border through a variety of strategies, including three measures developed in 2019:

1. The Migration Protection Protocols (also known as “Remain in Mexico”) require participants who seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to wait for their U.S. immigration hearings in Mexico rather than in the United States. From January 2019, when the program started, to January 2020, there were more than 55,000 migrants, many of them seeking asylum, who had been sent back to Mexico to await a hearing in U.S. immigration courts.

2. In July 2019, the administration announced an “interim final rule” that prohibits applications for asylum from anyone who passed through another country en route to the United States and did not apply for asylum there first. This means that most Central Americans (who pass through Mexico) are prohibited from accessing asylum under the rule.

3. Finally, the U.S. has signed agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to send nationals of other countries to their territories to be processed for asylum. So far, this program has only started in Guatemala, with over 200 migrants from Honduras and El Salvador, including many children, sent there in January 2020, and likelihood of greater expansion of the program this year.

All of these measures are currently under litigation in various courts around the United States, with plaintiffs charging that the U.S. is shirking its obligation to provide protection to those fleeing persecution and that the three measures put in place do not meet minimum standards for doing this. In 2020, it will fall on the courts to decide the fate of the asylum system, and, the fate of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who fall under the U.S. administration’s new rules.

"It will fall on the courts to decide the fate of the asylum system."

Andrew Selee is President of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan institution that seeks to improve immigration and integration policies. He is a leading expert on migration globally, with a special emphasis on immigration policies in Latin America and in the United States. He is the author of several books and often contributes articles in leading news outlets such as Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times,, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, among others.

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