The Fundamental Concept of Asylum
The political and moral concept of asylum is not modern. It traces back to ancient times, hinging on the morality of dignity and carried out in the practice of sheltering. We, as human beings, were responsible for not only providing shelter to those seeking refuge, but to also treat refugees with dignity because there was a common acceptance that by simply being human, you were worthy of at least those two things.
Seeking and giving refuge is core to various ancient political and faith traditions. For example, Muhammad’s hijrah, or migration from Mecca to Medina to flee persecution is what marks the beginning of the Islam calendar and provides a foundation for protecting asylum-seekers. In the ancient Greek playright “The Suppliant Maidens,” Aechylus tells a story of a the King Pelasgus offering refuge to 50 women fleeing sexual violence, risking reputation and retribution in doing so. Within the Old Testament, there are recurring reminders of the dignity that refugees deserve: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 22:20).
Even as these traditions guide humanity to offer shelter, dignity, and protection to refugees, there is also a contradicting force that leads us to fear the “other.” A response to such fear, especially with the rise of the nation-state, led to the creation of barriers, borders, and walls. These served as comforting structures to ease the anxiety that people felt towards strangers seeking refuge in their lands. Although the tradition of asylum instructs us to offer protection to the other, the more modern concept convinces us that we need to protect ourselves from the other. However, asylum is innate to humans. Walls are not. With that in mind, when looking at the history of asylum in the United States, it can be seen that the country’s policies are not rooted in the fundamental concept of asylum of offering shelter and dignity, rather they are based on the concept of barriers and borders, often offering refuge to select, convenient groups.
Asylum in the US: Propping up Political Allies
Following World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, President Truman signed an executive order in 1945 allowing the entry of thousands of refugees who had suffered Nazi persecution. The larger international community, retrospectively appalled by the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Germany, hosted the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951 in efforts to respond to the large volumes of displaced peoples in Europe and prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future. 145 nations collectively defined the term ‘refugee’ and laid out the obligations that States had to protect those seeking refuge. However it wasn’t until 16 years later that the U.S. signed the 1967 Protocol, which legally bound them as a country to the terms and conditions laid out in the Refugee Convention. Based on the framework of the Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, the U.S. finally passed the Refugee Act in 1980, which codified asylum law. This was a major attempt by the U.S. to take a more humanitarian and objective stance and establish itself as a haven for the oppressed. However, the U.S. has fallen short of such intentions of objectivity.
The U.S. continued to pick and choose to whom it offered refuge, the system becoming a clear reflection of political alliance. Because the U.S. asylum system emerged during the Cold War, one common concept of refuge was that it was synonymous to “fleeing Communism.” In its initiation, the U.S. offered asylum to high numbers of Cubans and Nicaraguans, countries where the U.S. was in opposition to the communist regimes. However, the U.S. denied Guatemalans and Salvadorans at exponentially higher rates. Looking specifically at figures from various Central American countries in the early years of legal asylum, between 1984 and 1990, the acceptance rate of Nicaraguan asylum applications was 25%. However, the acceptance rates of Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylum applications was 1.8% and 2.6% respectively. The discrepancy between these figures is a cruel reality that reflects the U.S.’s unjust support of dictatorships, revealing that political and economic interests have higher importance than the promise the U.S. made to protect human life. Throughout the 80s, in Guatemala and El Salvador, the U.S. was propping up right-wing dictators that were fighting supposedly communist guerrilla groups whereas the Nicaraguan government was communist and the U.S. felt the need to accept citizens fleeing the Sandinista regime.
At that point in history, the political orchestration of asylum denial was deep-rooted. Congress refused to provide foreign aid to governments that were committing human rights abuses. To ensure that asylum claims would not reveal the human rights abuses occurring in Guatemala and El Salvador, President Reagan labeled migrants from these countries as “economic migrants,” meaning that they did not qualify for asylum, which was granted on the grounds of fleeing persecution for one of five following reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a “particular social group.” By classifying them as economic migrants, the Reagan Administration could continue to funnel money to Guatemala and El Salvador as these regimes carried out genocide against their own people. For the Guatemalans and Salvadorans who managed to flee and arrive at the U.S.’s doorstep, they were denied asylum and immediately deported to their home country where many faced torture or death. Refuge was denied in the name of political and economic interests.
The Rise of the Sanctuary Movement
These policies that blatantly went against the rhetoric of the Refugee Act and inhumanely denied asylum to Central American refugees is what gave rise to the Sanctuary Movement. The Movement originated in congregations in Tucson, Arizona and within a couple of years, extended to hundreds of congregations, and some universities and seminaries, across the U.S., all of which labeled themselves as “sanctuaries” and fulfilled the great human tradition of sheltering and protecting. Operating within an Underground Railroad type of system, volunteers transported refugees from sanctuary to sanctuary until they safely reached their destination. Once settling into the community, refugees were invited to use the pulpit and community events as spaces for sharing their testimonies, and in that way, these sanctuary sites continued to strengthen their solidarity with and support for migrant communities.
Many who joined the Sanctuary Movement did so for a variety of reasons, whether it was a response to their faith, a political statement, or to simply expose the human rights violations that were being committed by the U.S. Since the creation of the asylum system, the U.S. has failed to comply with its own carefully crafted laws as well as international treaties tasking citizens, advocates, and governments alike to expose such illegality. The Canadian government has recently shed light on the recent human rights abuses committed by the U.S. government against asylum-seekers.
Canada Questions the U.S. as a Place of Refuge
Sixteen years ago, the U.S. and Canada signed a treaty mutually recognizing each other as safe countries in which immigrants could seek refuge. This means that Canada can deny asylum to someone entering the country at the U.S.-Canada border on the grounds that they were already in a safe country by being in the U.S. Last month, Canadian Courts ruled this “Safe Third Country” pact invalid, citing inhumane imprisonment of asylum-seekers within the U.S. immigration system. Justice Ann Marie McDonald claimed in her ruling that she can’t turn a blind eye to the “terrifying, isolating, and psychologically traumatic” experiences that asylum-seekers endure while detained in the U.S. that are a direct violation of their human rights. While this ruling may be appealed, Canada’s stance speaks volumes and further unveils the lack of decency and dignity present in the U.S. immigration system.
Also recognizing this lack of dignity, protection, and legality we, too, condemn the Trump Administration’s series of attacks on asylum-seekers, from within and outside of its borders. Like many of those of the Sanctuary Movement, we do so as a response to our faith and social justice teaching that calls to accompany those who are marginalized, such as today’s asylum-seekers who are being pushed out of sight and out of mind as they’re denied a basic right that the U.S. government guaranteed to them decades ago.
The Prolonged Attack on Asylum
The U.S. began denying asylum-seekers their right to seek asylum with the implementation of metering lists, which took effect in Nogales in May of 2018, when migrants were abruptly faced with weeks and later months-long waits before being able to formally begin their asylum process in the U.S. This dynamic was exacerbated with the subsequent implementation of Migration Protection Protocol (MPP), otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” forcing asylum-seekers to wait months, now years, in Mexico for their U.S. asylum hearings. These policies have forced many of the migrants passing through Nogales to live in unsustainable uncertainty. Justified by the pandemic, the Administration indefinitely suspended the asylum process in March, creating a more precarious situation for migrants in Mexico as their long wait now has no end in sight.
Dozens of the asylum-seekers that we serve at KBI have been waiting since December to begin the process of seeking protection in the U.S. The hundreds of asylum-seekers returned to Nogales under MPP have had their very first court dates rescheduled from March or April 2020 to October 2020, with no guarantee that court will even be open by that date. Yet CBP continues to place newly arriving Cubans and Venezuelans into MPP and returning them to prolonged limbo in Nogales, even as they subject asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to expulsions with no consideration of their claims for protection.
It was precisely because of these inhumane, illegal measures that we began organizing the #SaveAsylum movement last year, a campaign to defend the right to due process, refuge, and dignity that asylum-seekers have been denied. As was modeled by those of the Sanctuary Movement, we feel our faith calling us to stand up against the government and hold them accountable for the ways in which they have fallen short of their own laws and their own rhetoric to provide refuge.
On the morning of August 6th, a crowd of asylum seekers, civil society, people of faith, artists, and local leaders from both the U.S. and Mexico came together at the border wall in Ambos Nogales to fight to #SaveAsylum, an event organized by KBI and other community and faith-based groups. Although the towering steel beams created a physical divide, we were creative in coordinating a binational effort to protest the dismantling of the asylum process, hear testimonies from asylum seekers, receive their claims, and take action.
On the Sonoran side of the border, we were joined by the familiar faces of migrants who pass through the comedor each day. From toddlers to teenagers, single parents to multigenerational families, nearly 70 migrants came together under the sweltering morning sun to be part of the protest, listen to fellow asylum-seekers, and assert their right to due process in the United States. Signs were raised to the sky during the event expressing cries for help and messages of hope alike. One read: “We cry out for asylum because of the violence that we are enduring in Guerrero. Love unites us, but borders divide us.” Another stated: “They didn’t leave searching for riches; they were looking for a street where they could walk freely with their children.”
Similar sentiments emerged from testimonies in which asylum-seekers from Venezuela, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua, expressed the harm that they were fleeing and the hope they hold on to in finding refuge in the U.S. The group on the Arizona side of the border listened to their testimonies, validated their plea for support, and symbolically received their asylum claims.
A majority of the migrants in attendance have been stranded in Nogales for several months. Esdras who traveled with his 14-month old son, arrived in Nogales in February, put their names on the metering list, and then saw the borders harden before his eyes with the onset of the pandemic. Bernabe and Elena along with their two young children fled their gang-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City five months ago, but by the time they arrived at the border in March, the entire asylum process had been brought to a halt.
Because the U.S. government does not accept, recognize, nor receive their claims to asylum is exactly why we came together to #SaveAsylum and enact and validate what the U.S. government does not. Esdras says that the event restored his hope, “just knowing that there are actually people on the other side [of the border] who care makes me very glad.” We carry the testimonies of each asylum seeker who shared on August 6th and of all asylum-seekers with great responsibility to be persistent and compassionate advocates in the fight to restore asylum.
Stand with us, stand with asylum-seekers, and take action.