Toward a More Sensible Asylum Policy

Peter Van Buren
Aug 18 · 7 min read

America’s asylum laws, meant to help the most vulnerable, have instead become a clogged backdoor for economic migrants. The Trump administration is restoring asylum to its correct role in American immigration policy. It is a long overdue, right thing to do, but almost nobody is satisfied. Here’s why.

Asylum is a very old concept, dating back to the ancient Greeks. It recognizes a person persecuted by his own country can be offered residence and protection by another country. The actual conditions vary considerably across the globe (the U.S. will consider Female Genital Mutilation grounds for asylum while in many nations it is an accepted practice), but in most cases asylum is offered to people who face a well-founded fear of persecution if sent home on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.

The definition of those five protected grounds have also varied greatly based on shifts in American domestic politics. Since 1994 for example, LGBT status has been, and remains under Trump, a possible claim to asylum. Domestic violence was granted consideration as grounds under the Obama administration, only to be rolled back under Trump.

But even as those criteria have changed with political winds, asylum has never been about simply wanting a better life. Poverty, for all its horrors, has never fallen within the protected grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group, though is often assumed to by progressive journalists without access to the Internet and some Democratic legislators from the Bronx.

The reality of 2019 is the asylum system has evolved into a cheater’s backdoor, a pseudo-legal path to immigration otherwise not available to economic migrants. They lack either the skills for working visas, or the ties to qualify for legal immigration under America’s family reunification system. So they walk to the border and emptily ask for asylum, taking advantage of previous administrations’ look-the-other-way “solution” to their ever-growing numbers. Affirmative asylum claims, made at ports of entry, jumped 35 percent in the last two years even as refusal rates for those cases along the southern border run into the 80th percentile.

It works — for them. A Honduran on the border who says he came to work is sent back almost immediately. However, should he make a claim to asylum, the U.S. is obligated to adjudicate his case. Since detaining asylum seekers and their families while the processes play out over at time years is expensive and politically distasteful (kids in cages!), until recently most asylum seekers were instead released into American society to wait out their cases. They became eligible for work authorization if their cases extended past 150 days, as almost all do. The number of pending cases in early 2019 was 325,277, more than 50 times higher than in 2010.

Eventual approval rates for all nationalities over the past decade average only 28 percent (some place the approval rate as low as 15 percent and argue it is because of unfairness in the system, rather than illegitimate claims. Others claim the approval rate, however low, is bogus, reflecting clever coaching by immigration lawyers instead of legitimate fears), and after denial the applicant could either refile as a defensive asylum claim, or simply disappear into the vast underground of illegals.

Previous administrations’ plans to create expedited asylum processes proved ineffective as numbers endlessly just increase to fill the available opportunities. Simply making a claim to asylum has been enough to live and work in America in one status or another. Trump is changing that.

The most visible change is detaining asylum seekers and their families at the border instead of releasing them into society to wait for their cases to be processed. Detention is a deterrent to economic migrants making false claims to asylum, statistically somewhere between seven to nine out of 10 persons plus their families.

The next change was for the Trump administration to negotiate for asylum seekers to wait out their processing times not in American society or in a detention facility, but in Mexico, a program called the Migrant Protection Protocols. People at the border make their asylum claim, and are then nudged a step backward to wait for an answer in Mexico. This relieves the U.S. of the costs, monetary (the House just voted an additional $4.6 billion to be spend on beds and baths for detainees) and political.

Mexican officials estimate about 60,000 people will be sent to Mexico by the end of August under the Migrant Protection Protocols. The policy seems to be effective in weeding out economic migrants as many, denied the chance to work off their debts in America to the human traffickers they paid for the journey north, choose to return home to Central America and abandon their previous sworn assertion such a return would imperil their lives.

A more significant Trump change to U.S. policy is to bring it in line with the European standard (“Dublin Convention”) of country of first refuge. Most of Europe subscribes to this model, which requires asylum claims to be made in the first country that can offer refuge. Germany suspended the rule in 2015, driving hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to its borders. This had the effect of European countries buckling under the strain of the migrants marching through their territory en route to Germany.

Nonetheless, the idea of the Dublin Convention rules is a person legitimately fleeing a repressive government would want safety as soon as possible. If the person is really just an economic migrant, this will stop him from “forum shopping” to see if the economic benefits are better in Italy or Austria. Or Mexico versus the United States.

In the American context, if someone is fleeing gang vengeance in Honduras, Mexico would become his refuge even though his cousin needs help in the restaurant in Chicago. The U.S. will thus not consider asylum seekers who pass through another country before reaching the United States (the order is being challenged in the courts, as is another refusing to accept asylum claims from those who enter the U.S. illegally.)

To put the plan into practice, U.S. reached a deal with Guatemala for that nation to take in more asylum seekers from other Central American nations. The U.S. is expected to sign similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras. The U.S. has had an identical but little-noticed arrangement in place with Canada for many years, allowing the U.S. to not consider asylum applications from persons who did not apply first while in Canada. Despite the media hysteria about cruelty, the idea is nothing new.

The impact of these changes will be significant. Though Mexico does not yet have a formal safe third country agreement with the U.S., its Commission for Aid to Migrants projects 80,000 asylum requests this year, up from only 2,137 five years ago. Mexico and other Central American nations are expected to also become a place of first refuge for the many Haitians, Cubans, and Africans who previously just passed through their territory en route to America.

This illustrates an ancillary benefit to moving some of the costs of housing migrants to Mexico, and asking for more asylum processing by Guatemala and other nations: it gives them a reason to police their own borders. Until recently, there was no incentive for these countries to stop migrants headed north, and indeed much incentive to pass on the problems by opening their own borders to northbound traffic. This same thinking allowed human traffickers and drug dealers to operate with near impunity.

Following all this, the newest change concerns derivative claims to asylum. Spouses and minor children of those approved for asylum continue to be granted asylum alongside the principal. AG Barr, however, recently overturned a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals saying a Mexican adult man could apply for asylum on the basis of his father being targeted by a cartel. Previous administrations held such an adult, while obviously not a dependent minor, would still automatically “inherit” asylum as the member of a particular social group, his extended family. Barr says now the adult can still apply today for asylum, but has now to prove his case independent of his father.

Americans broadly favor immigration in general. But the gap between orderly immigration and unfettered immigration based on how many people can slip through physical holes in the border and loopholes in the law has grown too wide, to the point where a quarter of the 45 million foreign-born people currently in the U.S. arrived here illegally. Some 60 percent of likely voters support efforts to “prevent migrants from making fraudulent asylum claims and being released into the country.” As Europe has acknowledged and America is learning, modern immigration comes with considerable social and political costs, and those will be accounted for by society one way (good and thought out) or another (violent and chaotic.)

As David Frum melodramatically wrote to encourage his fellow progressives to abandon garbage “policy” like abolishing ICE and throwing open the borders, “if liberals won’t enforce borders, fascists will.” Rewriting that a bit, if Congress will not reform immigration policy in line with a broad national consensus, then whoever is in the White House will, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. The result is Obama’s DACA reforms didn’t outlast his administration, and if a Democrat wins in 2020 Trump’s changes to asylum processing will be rolled back. Nothing gets permanently resolved that way, and it needs to be.

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

Peter Van Buren

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Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People

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