The terms that we use when we talk about immigration are frequently used without much understanding of their legal definitions. This is the case, for example, when we hear people refer to asylum seekers as “illegal.” In fact, international law protects the rights of asylum seekers to seek protection in a guest country.
Two terms that are frequently confused are “refugee” and “asylum seeker.” A refugee is someone who has requested protection in another country while still in their home country or refugee camp. Eventually, they may be granted permission to enter another country as a refugee.
An asylum seeker is someone requesting protection at the time that they enter another country either at an official border crossing or along the host nation’s border. Immigration attorney Ilona Bray states that both refugees and asylum seekers “must prove the same thing — that they qualify for protection under U.S. law, because they meet the definition of a refugee found in Section 101 (a)(42)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” This act states that a refugee is someone seeking protection from a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
A refugee seeking entrance into the United States, according to Bray, may apply by contacting “an overseas office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.” An asylum seeker, according to Bray, “can complete a request for asylum as soon as they arrive in the U.S.”
“An illegal immigrant,” states Bray, is someone who “enters a country without meeting the legal requirements for entry. However, under Article 14(1) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum in another country. In addition, the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits nations from imposing penalties on people seeking asylum “if they are coming from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.” This threat is evaluated during the application process and reviewed by a judge selected by the U.S. Attorney General.
Seeking asylum is legal and protected by international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention also prohibits sending an asylum seeker back “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
A common theme among anti-immigrant proponents is that people seeking asylum should do it “the right way.” However, people fleeing their homeland due to war or other crisis, and seeking protection for themselves and/or their family members, frequently don’t have the opportunity of presenting themselves at an official border checkpoint.
It has been documented by Dara Lind, a writer who specializes in immigration issues, that many asylum seekers trying to do it “the right way” at the U.S.-Mexico border are turned away or physically blocked from setting foot across the U.S. border in clear violation of international law. Journalist Robert Moore, writer for the Texas Monthly, wrote that he witnessed a group of asylum seekers being blocked from crossing the United States border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The officials, wrote Moore, stood on the other side of the U.S. border, in Mexican territory, physically blocking people from presenting asylum applications in the United States.
As stated by the International Justice Resource Center, “It is perfectly legal to come to the United States without papers and request asylum. International law prohibits the U.S. government from turning away people with legitimate humanitarian claims or from sending them back to countries where their lives are in danger.” The center goes on to point out that “Federal law and regulations specify that anyone who comes to the U.S. without legal status, and claims a fear of persecution, has the right to an interview to determine whether that fear is credible (by a judge); then, if they pass that interview, they have the right to formally seek asylum.”
It seems that many people trying to seek asylum in the U.S. are also being punished for seeking asylum by being separated from their children. Several U.S. officials have admitted that this policy was implemented to scare people from seeking asylum in the first place. America is better than this.
Great nations treat asylum seekers humanely while their asylum application is fairly investigated and reviewed by a federal judge.