Ever since Donald Trump assumed the presidency on a tide of vile hatred and racist attacks upon Mexican migrants, the administration has been chipping away at our asylum laws and protections for refugees. As someone who has been part of this system for decades as an immigration judge and refugee officer and most recently a supervisory asylum officer, I have an up-close view of just how destructive Mr. Trump’s chipping away at the system has been — and how despicably dishonest and mendacious his stated rationales for it really are.
It is most disturbing to see our great nation surrendering its historic commitment to refugee protection during a period of the greatest world-wide refugee crisis since World War II. The Refugee Act of 1980 was the U.S.’s domestic response to our treaty obligation under the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees. Congress declared at that time that “the historic policy of the United States was to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.”
This administration’s family separations policy — ripping children from their parents to serve as a deterrent to asylum seekers, and detention of children in unsanitary cages without adequate supervision — reached levels of cruelty unmatched in modern history. Multiple attempts to block refugees from even reaching our southern border have been implemented. The white nationalist cabal that is running the president’s immigration policy is pulling all the stops in turning a system of humanitarian protection into one of rejection.
The director of the asylum division in the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most respected managers in the agency, has been replaced because he was an experienced advocate for the rights of asylum seekers. The so-called Third Country Transit Rule bars practically all asylum seekers arriving at our southern border who haven’t first sought asylum in hyper-violent countries such as Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, even though none of those countries can provide safety for their own citizens, let alone for refugees, and even though none of them have an adequately functioning asylum administration that would make the rule meaningful.
Where are the days when Ronald Reagan welcomed refugees to our shores? Mr. Trump continues to claim that the entire asylum system is fraudulent, that it is a “big, fat con job.”
When I was interviewing Salvadorian minors in San Salvador in 2016, as part of our government’s Central American Minor (CAM) program, I heard hundreds of painfully credible cases of teenage kids who had been given the ultimatum of either joining criminal gangs or being killed; of parents who had been told that they could either turn over their daughters to an ultra-violent gang or see the eradication of their whole family; of children who had witnessed the violent deaths of parents or siblings, and been informed that they would be next if they didn’t agree to sell drugs or serve as look-outs for gangs.
The so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires that asylum seekers at the southern border be warehoused in Mexico pending their scheduled appearance in immigration court, has resulted in the return of some 50,000 migrants to border cities where they are subject to assaults, kidnappings and murder.
During the last year of the Obama administration the U.S. refugee admissions ceiling was increased to 110,000 for 2017. However, on the heels of Mr. Trump’s Muslim ban the administration has whittled down refugee admissions to a ceiling of 18,000 in 2020. The U.S. has effectively withdrawn from the field, sending the signal that we no longer consider ourselves as leaders in the world for refugee interests.
Mr. Trump’s remarks about migrants from “s***hole countries” have resonated around the world. The question posed -- Why has the U.S. abandoned its leadership role in refugee protection? — can perhaps best be answered with another question. Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting schools in Lome, Togo, in West Africa to discuss with the students the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the significance of his humanitarian message internationally. At one school, when I took questions, a 10-year-old boy asked, “Why does Donald Trump hate Africans?”
Paul Grussendorf (email@example.com) has been an immigration judge, a refugee officer for the UN Refugee Agency and a refugee officer for the U.S. government. He just retired from his position as supervisory asylum officer for the U.S. government. His book is, “My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories.”