The US asylum system is deeply flawed. But there are ways to fix it | Alexandria Villarreal

2 months ago

The US asylum system is deeply flawed. But there are ways to fix it | Alexandria Villarreal

The Guardian

In the United States, Asylum is a place on a map. Today, the roughly 1,000-person, predominantly white, scattered township sits quietly along the Susquehanna River, about 60 miles north-west of Scranton, Joe Biden’s birthplace.

But more than two centuries ago, Asylum hosted the crème de la crème of French society – displaced aristocrats, military officers, business owners, secular clergy – hoping to manifest another Paris in the Pennsylvania woods.

These refugees fled a violent revolution – and an uprising against slavery in a then-French colony now called Haiti – to demand not only safety but comfort in our fledgling republic. Lore suggests “no place in America ever held at one time, or in so short a time, so many persons of noble birth,” and that even Marie Antoinette was destined to be there, before she met the guillotine.

The Frenchmen and women frolicked away their 1790s playing backgammon and drinking brandy. Then, after Napoleon Bonaparte invited them to reclaim their sumptuous estates back home, the vast majority repatriated across the Atlantic as quickly as they had come.

Such wealthy, white elitists fickly seeking luxury as much as sanctuary are hardly the people who spring to mind when we think of asylum seekers today. But somehow, they and their cultural descendants have come to embody “ideal immigrants” in the most powerful corners of the American imagination, a testament to how white supremacy has gotten so deeply entrenched in the US immigration system.

Meanwhile, at the US-Mexico border – often in defiance of domestic and international laws displaced people from across the global south are routinely denied access to even requesting what should be a universal human right.

If left unchecked, the bleak future of US asylum protections in a system that has long been deeply flawed and is now nearly fatally broken is not difficult to predict. We are already living its prologue, as our government knowingly strands thousands of vulnerable migrants – primarily Black and brown people from Latin America and the Caribbean – in dangerous cities abroad to be kidnapped, raped, murdered and otherwise attacked, or expels them to countries where they are stranded, tortured and killed.

Likewise, racist politics are on full display as Texas, Arizona and Florida’s rightwing Republican state leaders take advantage of migrants, allegedly tricking them into flying or bussing them to northern, Democratic-led places with false promises of jobs, housing and more, under dubious legal circumstances, while refusing to liaise with the destinations.

The cruelty of the past few years can either be a wake-up call or a harbinger, especially as the climate crisis, deepening economic inequities, civil strife and other violent forces swell and create record numbers of forcibly displaced people across the globe.

Even if the US chooses to redirect its course on human rights, mere reforms won’t immediately fix things. But they can at least reduce harms and injustices.

To start, the US could take a less punitive approach at the US-Mexico border, where ill-conceived border strategies such as Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have hamstrung any semblance of due process for asylum seekers.

Whenever the Biden administration ditches such hardline policies, Republicans massing behind xenophobic border messaging and moderate Democrats afraid of losing re-election, or their voters switching party, respond with outrage, reactive legislation and lawsuits.

Even the definition of who qualifies as an asylee is vastly outdated. Only those fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group are eligible for asylum, categories the US Congress copied from a 1951 United Nations convention that was primarily concerned with safeguarding white, European refugees after the second world war.

A more comprehensive and less anachronistic designation that explicitly recognizes gender-based violence, climate-driven migration, abuse by non-state actors, and unlivable poverty as forms of persecution would better capture the experiences of today’s asylum seekers from the global south.

But US asylum protections have also proven weak and prejudiced from their very inception. In the 1980s – soon after the international definition of “asylee” was codified in the US statute Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing severe political and religious violence sought protection in the US but few were granted asylum, despite many seemingly qualifying.

The rate of granting asylum still varies dramatically based on nationality and is very low among Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, Mexicans and Salvadorans, even when they finally get to stand in front of a US immigration judge.

In this context, asylum is better understood as an important but insufficient form of protection. And while the asylum system itself desperately needs reform, lawmakers must also conceive of new, regionally specific legal pathways divorced from our disappointing humanitarian history.

What could these pathways look like? As the climate crisis represents an unprecedented threat to humanity, an effective climate visa for those pushed out by natural disasters, sky-high temperatures, rising sea levels, and other environmental phenomena would be a strong place to start.

Government officials should also consider how to establish programs that set forcibly displaced people up for success once they reach the US, especially as many understaffed US businesses are currently crying out to be able to employ more immigrants, including asylum seekers, more quickly and easily.

For example, could Congress or the White House leverage university networks to create opportunities for youth from Central America’s vulnerable northern triangle, recognizing that these young people are not burdens but potential future taxpayers, cultural contributors and voters?

Even this framing seems strange – why should displaced people even justify themselves? No one asked the French aristocrats in Pennsylvania to prove their merit, nor the 40% of Americans descended from immigrants at Ellis Island, or the Norwegians Trump hoped would immigrate in 2018.

Their merit has always been assumed, even as people of color are routinely interrogated about what they would contribute if allowed to stay.

Asylum should be more than a word on a map. To form a more perfect union, our country can be a place where everyone who needs refuge can find it all around them.