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Harmful refugee barriers don’t protect U.S.

As they prepared to present themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry today, a group of asylum seekers from Central America gathered at the border fence in Playas de Tijuana Sunday morning cheered on by supporters on both sides of the border.

Trump administration refugee and asylum policies have been criticized by many parties but none as meaningful as the critique offered in a recently submitted amicus curiae brief by Local 1924 of the American Federation of Government Employees. In its statement to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the union expressed its deep concerns about the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Local 1924 has expertise well beyond what most critics of the MPP can claim. It represents the interests of more than 2,500 employees of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), including about 150 employees of the Asylum Program — the division within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for screening migrants apprehended at the border to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution if returned to their home countries.

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Waiting early Tuesday morning in Tijuana at the Mexico - U.S. border, hundreds listen as a few numbers are called to go to the U.S. border to meet with U.S. immigration officials. Under the new Trump administration rule, which took effect Tuesday, migrants arriving at U.S. territory on the southwest border would be ineligible to apply for asylum if they had failed to file for safe haven in another country en route to the United States.
Waiting early Tuesday morning in Tijuana at the Mexico - U.S. border, hundreds listen as a few numbers are called to go to the U.S. border to meet with U.S. immigration officials. Under the new Trump administration rule, which took effect Tuesday, migrants arriving at U.S. territory on the southwest border would be ineligible to apply for asylum if they had failed to file for safe haven in another country en route to the United States. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The union’s amicus curiae brief argues that “the MPP abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and violates our international and domestic legal obligations.” Although the asylum seekers are not returned directly to their home countries, MPP effectively denies them the due process afforded by the credible fear screening — requiring them instead to return to dangerous conditions in Mexico while awaiting their immigration court hearings. The brief quotes the State Department’s own human rights report on the risks faced by the migrants: Kidnappings, torture, arbitrary arrest and death at the hands of drug cartels and Mexican military and police authorities are among the potential harms. The situation has worsened since the brief was submitted. Asylum seekers are now being returned to the state of Tamaulipas, where the bodies of hundreds of disappeared Mexicans and migrants from other countries have been exhumed from mass graves.

While the amicus brief addressed only the MPP, the union could have included many other Trump policies in its critique. Since taking office, the administration has launched a full-on assault on the admission and protection of refugees and others seeking safety in the United States. These policies have often been justified by casting refugees in the role of security threats, rather than persons seeking refuge. Naming the return to Mexico policy the “Migrant Protection Protocol” is itself emblematic — it provides no protection, nor is the protocol in accordance with U.S. or international law. It comes on top of efforts to separate families; prosecute asylum seekers for crossing the border without prior permission; make it more difficult for women fleeing extreme domestic abuse to gain asylum when their own governments will not protect them; speed up adjudication of asylum claims leaving refugees too little time to prepare their cases; and decrease the number of refugees admitted for resettlement to record low levels.

These policies are concerning, not only because of their harm to desperate people seeking safety, but also because of the damage they do to the long term interests of the United States. Generous refugee policies have well served U.S. foreign and domestic interests throughout our history. Refugees such as Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin and Madeleine Albright have contributed to U.S. economic growth and national security through their scientific, business and diplomatic prowess (respectively). The resettlement program has been used to save the lives of lesser known but equally important contributors to the U.S. — especially the interpreters, drivers and other local staff who served with U.S. forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and then became targets of attack because of their service to us.

When the U.S. is open to refugees, it proves to its own citizens and the rest of the world that the United States is indeed the shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan spoke of so eloquently: “a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” Of course, not all applicants for admission deserve to enter our country. Tough decisions must be made each and every day as to whether or not to grant asylum to those who request it. But, as stated clearly in the amicus brief, putting harmful barriers in the way of bona fide refugees finding protection is not the way to ensure ours.

Susan F. Martin (martinsf@georgetown.edu) is Donald G. Herzberg Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University.

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