I Taught the Law
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I Taught the Law

America’s 2020 Celebration of World Refugee Day

Photo by James Beheshti on Unsplash

2.5 hours and 161 pages later, I’ve made it through my first read. The general tone is dark and sinister. The main characters are unnamed. Anonymity removes the likelihood of empathy. I’ve ignored the author’s summary and instead concluded the main theme is finding cruel ways to re-victimize victims.

It’s what you might expect to read in a psychologically twisted fantasy, turning pages in disgust while huddled under a blanket for protection. The Cersei Lannisters of King’s Landing have emerged. But instead of acting as fictional characters in an HBO production, they’re writing newly proposed federal regulations targeting asylum seekers.

Immigration laws have long been a complex and dysfunctional labyrinth of exclusionary principles. If we dig deep, we might recognize that the concept of desirable vs. undesirable has long pervaded our history. This lens led to the destruction of “undesirable” Native communities. It also made the enslavement of involuntary migrants from Africa culturally acceptable.

These histories deserve their own volumes. But I point to them as a small way of understanding similar themes upon which our immigration system has been designed. For example, we’ve codified the term “arriving aliens” to describe human beings that desire to come to the United States. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of creatures from other planets?

In the glossy version of immigration, America largely embraced an open-door policy during its first century as a nation. Within this framework was an underlying principle of welcoming refugees, people seeking safety from other places around the world. For example, French Azilum was established in 1793 for political refugees during the French Revolution. As immigration evolved and formalized, the humanitarian protection offered to persecuted individuals largely remained.

But immigration laws have also long been subverted by exclusionary concepts. People perceived as cultural misfits become one-dimensional caricatures of people’s worst fears. The monstrous Catholic Irish, terrorist Muslims, and the illegal job-stealing Mexicans come to mind as just a few. There’s also our first major immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The title gives it away, but I’ll spell it out too. We excluded Chinese nationals from immigrating to the U.S. or naturalizing, and then 61 years later realized our errors. It’s also hard to also stomach our role in refusing a ship of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany.

In our more recent history, we’ve attempted redemption. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, we have protected and welcomed refugees — with self-sufficiency as a central concept. And we realized that as a world leader, we must also demonstrate compassion through humanitarian action.

But since 2016, we have witnessed a marked shift. Refugee resettlement has continually declined and has now reached an all-time low. In 2017, we witnessed a flurry of Islamophobic executive orders, targeting refugee (and immigrant) admissions from Muslim-majority countries. Despite mass public protests and litigation efforts, a third version of that Muslim ban eventually gained Supreme Court approval.

Emboldened, the attacks have continued. We shamefully separate children from their parents, and we detain them. Non-Mexicans are sent to Mexico to wait in line for their turn to request asylum. There’s also the asylum transit ban. Asylum-seekers at the southern border who traveled through any country are no longer eligible for asylum relief. Legal challenges have been filed, but everything remains in limbo.

So perhaps the next action comes as no surprise. Five days before the global celebration of World Refugee Day, we introduced new ways to shut the door on asylum-seekers: a proposed set of regulations offering hollowed-out protections.

A quick peek at the affected population. Refugees and asylum-seekers are resilient, hardworking individuals in search of safety and an opportunity to restart their lives. An asylum-seeker/refugee is a person — like you or me. Imagine a doctor mom working in the community hospital and a father teaching political science at the local university. Their children went to school one morning. Due to the spiraling political crisis, the superintendent announced school closures just hours later. Chaos ensued, the government issued a death threat to the father at gunpoint, and the family became a moving target. And suddenly, the day ended very differently from how it started.

You might also recognize famous names among the ranks of such refugees — Albert Einstein, Mila Kunis, Ilhan Omar and Gloria Estefan. There are also people within our everyday communities who rise over and beyond, just like Alex Ngaba, a young refugee turned valedictorian.

The U.S. has also adopted an internationally accepted legal definition. Under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A), a refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Such a person is unable or unwilling to return to his country of nationality or last habitual residence on this basis. A person who seeks this protection at or within our national borders is referred to as an asylum-seeker.

So what exactly is so problematic with the latest of proposed changes? Well, there’s the big picture: An all time high of 79.5 million people worldwide are currently forcibly displaced from their homes, and we turn a blind eye. But there’s also the gut-wrenching idea of ending legal protections. If the regulations are allowed to take effect, judges can reject applications without offering a fair day in court, and currently approved grounds for asylum would be eliminated. “Frivolousness” will expand in application. When an asylum application is deemed frivolous, the door to any immigration is permanently closed. Did I mention there’s 161 pages of proposed changes?

We might be just short of inviting asylum-seekers to a red wedding, but we aren’t too far from sending them back to one they just escaped. As we continue to fight against this current trend, let’s also move beyond the brute exclusionary principles that play upon our primal fears. And let’s consider resuming the more glossy immigration narratives, where we can once again welcome diversity of people and serve as a beacon of hope for those that have none remaining.



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Mission-driven lawyer, writer and strategist.