Beyond Syria: Immigration Policy in the United States
By: Jadie Mims
As civil war in Syria, destitution and political oppression in sub-Saharan Africa and enduring unrest in Libya force a growing number of innocent civilians out of their homes and into an international search for the protections of political asylum, one thing has become increasingly clear: The American public opinion on immigration policy is in large part as hypocritical as it is diverse.
With media coverage focused on some of Europe’s more xenophobic responses (see: Hungary) to the flood of migrants fleeing war-torn nations in search of safety, it is assuredly easier for Americans to point and criticize than it would be to take an introspective look at the inadequacy of our own policies on immigration.[i] Quick to point out what they see as being an insufficient bureaucratic response to the refugee crisis facing Europe, United States policymakers, presidential candidates and much of the American public seem to turn a blind eye not only to our role in both creating the regional unrest at the base of the issue (a topic for another day) and in accepting our share of the region’s migrants, but also to recurring issues with our own (mis)treatment of refugees seeking political asylum in the United States.
A hot-button topic just last year, political and legal debate over the summer 2014 influx of tens of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and historic levels of violence in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—has largely faded. Though coverage of the crisis has seemingly taken a back seat to the newer, shinier situation in Europe and the Middle East, our own government’s treatment of refugees seeking asylum in the United States is in many ways just as disheartening.
The migration of refugees fleeing Central America, which in fiscal year 2014 saw U.S. Customs and Border Control apprehend more than 68,000 unaccompanied minors and roughly 69,000 migrants traveling together as families, was at the time called by the Obama administration an “urgent humanitarian situation.” Through measures taken domestically to reinforce security at our southern border and increases in our funding and support of Mexican efforts to intercept immigrants crossing their own southern border en route to the United States, we have been able to effectively abate the flood of migrants attempting to enter the country illegally.
Although questions abound concerning the Mexican role in vetting these migrants (and the country’s compliance with international legal norms in carrying out detention and deportation procedures), the United States’ treatment of those “fortunate” enough to safely complete the trip to American soil has been a topic of intense scrutiny.
Central to this discussion is an analysis of the rights afforded to migrants of different legal classifications upon entering the country. For legal purposes, immigrants—people voluntarily opting to resettle outside of their home country—and refugees—those forced to flee their home countries for fear of death or persecution—are two very distinct groups.[ii] Immigrants entering the United States are afforded a legal process through which they can seek residency and eventually citizenship.[iii] Those choosing to skip this process and enter the country illegally are subject to deportation.[iv] Refugees, on the other hand, are entitled to apply for asylum, which, if granted, affords them federal protection against deportation to their home country.[v]
The process of applying for refugee status can be long and arduous, even for those cases that are legitimate and should eventually be granted asylum. Often, this journey begins with incarceration in remote detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security.[vi] Though migrants may be unable to effectively read or write in English, they are not afforded the right to legal representation.[vii] Unless they can either afford to hire an attorney themselves or are lucky enough to find assistance from those few that volunteer, these individuals often must attempt to navigate the complex system of laws governing asylum by themselves.[viii] Those that are ultimately refused protection as a refugee face deportation to their home country, which in many cases may effectively prove to be a death sentence.[ix]
Further impeding entry into the United States is a quota system designed to limit the number of refugees admitted annually. Though legislation restricting immigration to the United States can be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, modern policy is rooted largely in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965.[x] Though the INA abolished earlier quota systems capping the number of immigrants from certain nationalities in favor of an annual worldwide limit on the number of permanent immigrants to be allowed entrance (at 675,000, free of national origin distinctions), it granted Congress and the President the authority to determine an additional number of refugees to be admitted.[xi] This number, created to reflect “humanitarian concerns” but limited to a consideration of what would otherwise be “in the national interest,” is dissected by a pre-determined regional allocation.[xii] To illustrate, for fiscal year 2015, the number of worldwide immigrants to be admitted was capped at 70,000, of which 17,000 could hail from Africa, 13,000 from “East Asia,” 33,000 from the “Near East and South Asia,” and so on.[xiii] Of these 70,000, only 4,000 spots were allocated to refugees fleeing Latin America or the Caribbean.[xiv]
In the wake of the current refugee crisis and subsequent international pressure to increase the number of worldwide refugee admissions in the immediate future, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a plan last month under which the United States would expand its annual admission quota to 100,000 refugees by 2017.[xv] Though 2016’s worldwide cap has been set at 85,000, the number of refugees to be admitted from Latin America and the Caribbean has been decreased, to a measly 3,000.[xvi]
For a country that takes such pride in being “the land of the free,” a nation founded by immigrants with an open door to those willing to work hard to better themselves and for a shot at “the American dream,” we sure are making it difficult for those arriving a little late to the party. Sensible arguments can and have been made from both sides of the aisle on immigration reform, and policies breaking down barriers to refugee or legal immigrant status or creating a markedly easier path to citizenship have both costs and the potential for dire consequences. But our position in the world and history of accommodating those able to join and contribute to the prosperity of America lead to one conclusion: something more needs to be done.
[i] Eleni Kounalakis, Hungary’s Xenophobic Response, N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/07/opinion/hungarys-xenophobic-response.html
[ii] Michael Martinez & Miguel Marquez, What’s the difference between immigrant and refugee?, CNN (July 16, 2014), http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/15/us/immigrant-refugee-definition/
[vi] Holly Cooper & Jayashri Srikantiah, Op-Ed., The refugee tragedy in our own backyard, L.A. Times (Oct. 8, 2015), http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-cooper-and-srikantiah-refugees-without-rights-in-us-20151007-story.html
[ix] Sibylla Brodzinsky & Ed Pilkington, US government deporting Central American migrants to their deaths, The Guardian (Oct. 12, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/12/obama-immigration-deportations-central-america
[x] How the United States Immigration System Works: A Fact Sheet, American Immigration Council (Mar. 1, 2014), http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/how-united-states-immigration-system-works-fact-sheet
[xii] Memorandum from President Barack Obama to Sec’y of State John Kerry (Sept. 30, 2014) (on file at whitehouse.gov, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/30/presidential-memorandum-fy-2015-refugee-admissions)
[xv] Michael R. Gordon, Alison Smale, & Rick Lyman, U.S. Will Accept More Refugees as Crisis Grows, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015), http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/world/europe/us-to-increase-admission-of-refugees-to-100000-in-2017-kerry-says.html?referrer&_r=0