A Note From The Editors | Migration & Mobility
June 4, 2019
This interview with Alex Aleinikoff was conducted and condensed by frank news. It was originally published July 2019 in video, below is the transcript to that interview.
Alex Aleinikoff: In the time of the Obama Administration about sixty thousand unaccompanied minors showed up at the Southwest border. That's a big number, sixty thousand, but clearly one that can be handled within our system. Compare that to the Syrian refugee flow, which produced a flow of 2.5 or 3 million refugees to turkey and a million refugees to Lebanon which is a country of 4 million people. Those are huge flows. Those kinds of flows needed the international community to respond to help there.
But the flow to the United States of people primarily from these violence-torn states was one that could have been handled and was being handled in a way that took care of the children as necessary, allowed people to file for asylum claims if they had good claims for political asylum and the like. That has now been politicized into a flow of people coming simply for economic reasons, they're violating American sovereignty by requesting asylum and the policies adopted by the Trump Administration, most particularly in the last six months, this zero tolerance policy, the consequences have been dramatic and immoral. What the administration decided to do, in order to deter the flow of these families fleeing violence was that they would arrest the parents, put them into criminal proceedings, and separate them immediately from their children who would be held in detention around the country.
More than two thousand children were stripped from their parents' arms while the parents were criminally prosecuted. These are parents and children, many of whom had strong asylum claims. Even that has been taken from them because Attorney General Sessions has now issued a decision which binds asylum adjudicators in the United States that says that most people fleeing the kind of violence these people were fleeing, that is domestic violence or gang violence, would have a very difficult time now proving their case before and immigration judge. That was not what the rules were in the past.
You have harsh policies at border, separation of children, a change in the standards at the Southwest border, in a way that has inflicted huge injury and trauma on families who themselves were fleeing traumatic situations in their home country. All in the name of solving a problem that didn't exist, as we had control at the Southwest border and then rather a human and balanced policy that said we'll protect people that need protection, people who enter illegally who don't need protection should be returned to their home countries.
Rather than managing the border, we declared crisis at the border and it's lead, I think, to a moral crisis for this country.
PART TWO: Can you define how one gains refugee status in the U.S?
Alex Aleinikoff: We distinguish between refugees and asylees in the United States in the following way. People who come to the border or already in the U.S. and ask for asylum and are granted asylum, we tend to call asylees - people who have been granted asylum. Refugees are people who are selected overseas under the U.S. refugee program. What happens is every year, the president says I would like to bring in ten thousand, twenty thousand, a hundred thousand refugees from around the world and the State Department identifies groups of refugees. Congolese refugees, Syrian refugees, Butanese refugees, and Nepal, other places. Actually, DHS adjudicators, government adjudicators, go overseas and do asylum refugee determinations similar to asylum determinations, determine whether the person meets the definition of refugee, which is the same definition applied within the country for people seeking asylum. If they do, then they're brought in in an orderly fashion.
Now, President Obama in his final year had designated the number of refugees to enter the country at 110,000. President Trump in his first executive order reduced that to 50,000 with no explanation offered. He then reduced it this year to 45,000, even though it looks like because of the slowness in the process, only about 25,000 will enter. The numbers may go down even next year. As I said, compare that to Turkey to 3 million Syrian refugees. This year the United States will take maybe a few thousand Syrian refugees out of 5 million around the world.
Because of this, the United States has lost its leadership in refugee resettlement and in refugee response around the world. This is a very proud tradition that goes back to Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty of "give me your tired, your poor" were written about refugees. They're written about the flow of Russian, Jewish refugees coming to the United States in the 1880s. After World War II, we took in tens of thousands of displaced persons, more than a million Vietnamese came to the United States, almost a million Cubans arrived here, and we've had this tradition of resettling refugees.
That has now been basically thrown away, and the U.S. has lost its leadership position around the world on protecting persecuted people
PART THREE: Why declare crisis at the Southwest border?
Alex Aleinikoff: You may wonder why calling things at the Southwest border a crisis has a political benefit. Let me go back to the Obama Administration because the Obama Administration also identified the flow across the Southwest border as a crisis that had to be dealt with. At that time, the Obama Administration was interested in getting comprehensive immigration reform through the Congress, which would have been a mix of packages of enforcement at the Southwest border, legalization for some or most of the ten million long-term undocumented migrants in the United States. The goal was comprehensive immigration reform. It was thought by the Obama Administration that unless it could show control of the Southwest border, it could not get comprehensive immigration reform through. When the flow started coming from Central America of children and families who were fleeing violence, harsh actions were actually taken in terms of detention and other deterrence measures to stop that flow, to show the border was under control in order to get comprehensive immigration reform.
Now, we never got comprehensive immigration reform under the Obama Administration. There, the word crisis was for that set of politics. It really wasn't a crisis in terms of numbers.
In the Trump administration, the word "crisis" was used for other political purposes. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, he said he was going to stop the flow across the southwest border of Mexican criminals, and rapists, and murderers, and others, and said that if we didn't have a southwest border that wasn't controlled, we weren't a sovereign nation, and the like. That appealed to a set of voters in Republican primaries that pushed him to the nomination, and ultimately led to his election. The constant drumbeat of the southwest border and "build the wall" and separation of families and zero tolerance is all to appeal to this set of political supporters who were so crucial to the president's election. I think what's really important to recognize is that none of these harsh policies being pursued by the Trump administration appear to have the support of the majority of Americans.
The so-called Muslim ban. The reduction in the number of refugees. The ending of the DACA program that helped kids who had come at a young age to the United States in unlawful status. The proposed cut in legal immigration. The zero tolerance policy and the separation of children. Americans, by a significant majority, reject all these policies. So, while we focus on the words that are used and the political use of those words to solidify support among an important constituency for the president, let's not be confused about what the American people as a whole would prefer on these policies.
Editors Letter | July 2019