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Why the United States Calls Some Refugees 'Asylees'

Drawing distinctions between refugees and asylees is a political exercise, and a perilous one.

 Migrants line up in a row in front of the border post in Ceibo. Dozens of Central American migrants stranded at the Ceibo border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala were taken by the Mexican authorities to detention centers for migrants in Mexico. Photo: Jair Cabrera Torres/dpa (Photo by Jair Cabrera Torres/picture alliance via Getty Images)

 Migrants line up in a row in front of the border post in Ceibo. Dozens of Central American migrants stranded at the Ceibo border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala were taken by the Mexican authorities to detention centers for migrants in Mexico. Photo: Jair Cabrera Torres/dpa (Photo by Jair Cabrera Torres/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Sister Dianna Ortiz was born on Sept. 2, 1958 in Colorado Springs. She died of cancer on Feb. 19, 2021. When people write about her, they tend to divide her life into two stories: the story of her torture by a Guatemalan death squad and its American handler, and the story of her work to support other victims of torture. The first story is typically rendered in harrowing detail, to appeal to our humanity, to move us to do something to stop the ongoing suffering of Central Americans.

But graphic details go only so far. We know that descriptions of children in cages, separated from their parents, did nothing to change the hearts and minds of many people in the United States. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve reached some terminal state, condemned to bear witness, knowing the people who need to listen aren’t going to. But it’s always been this way.

An asylee is a refugee who doesn’t have UNHCR acting as a middleman.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and in the early 1980s I briefly participated in the Central American Solidarity Movement. Through this work I met a man named Ezequiel, who was part of a growing Guatemalan expatriate community in the city. He told me he was a refugee. I had no reason to wonder whether he might, in fact, be an asylee. I couldn’t have told you the difference.

The words refugee and asylee are often confused. The reasons for this are rooted in the complexities of decolonization and the persistence of imperialism after World War II. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) uses the word refugee to describe people who flee persecution in their country and cross an international border to find safety in another country. But UNHCR uses refugee and asylee interchangeably, because, for its purposes, there is no difference. Its mandate is to help people suffering persecution: Drawing distinctions between refugees and asylees is a political exercise, and a perilous one.

UNHCR focuses much of its efforts on resettlement. A refugee flees to a country that, in partnership with UNHCR, has agreed to provide temporary sanctuary while UNHCR evaluates the refugee’s claim, conducts security screenings and coordinates permanent resettlement. But the process leaves out a lot of refugees.

In the 1980s, death squads killed 200,000 people in Guatemala. One million people were internally displaced and 200,000 fled, seeking asylum abroad. UNHCR designated them refugees, but it couldn’t resettle them, because the United States was funding, training and fighting alongside the death squads. Resettlement would have amounted to a rebuke of the United States’ conduct. If UNHCR wanted U.S. funding, it had to stay out of resettlement in the Western Hemisphere.

Our asylum system is a necessary evil that’s been used for evil, but it can be used for good. It can be our better angel, a mechanism for recognizing the responsibility we have to the people we’ve displaced. Because there’s a clear throughline here: The destruction of civil society in Central America during the 1980s created a vacuum that gangs and drug cartels filled, leading to the present refugee crisis.

Our asylum system is a necessary evil that’s been used for evil, but it can be used for good. It can be our better angel, a mechanism for recognizing the responsibility we have to the people we’ve displaced.

I don’t know what happened to Ezequiel. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans came to the United States in the early 1980s. The United States denied their petitions for asylum and deported them. Some people didn’t apply for asylum for fear of deportation. Perhaps Ezequiel was one of them. Perhaps he remained here, undocumented, and was eventually able to get a green card. Perhaps he’s trying to sponsor a family member petitioning for asylum right now.

Or perhaps he was deported and murdered by a Guatemalan death squad.

I don’t know what happened to Ezequiel because, as I said, I participated in the Central American Solidarity Movement only briefly. I was barely out of high school, and when I read the reports of the massacres in Central America I became extremely depressed. I didn’t know how to turn to others in the movement, to find strength in community. I stopped going to meetings and demonstrations.

I’m not a religious person, so I’m in no position to make a religious appeal. All I can do is return to the example of Sister Dianna. She drew strength from scripture. She saw something in the gospels and was inspired to act. Perhaps having this perspective, this ability to see herself as part of something bigger, enabled her to persist. To be brave. So much braver than me.

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the UNHCR's working definition of 'asylee'—a term it considers interchangeable with 'refugee' but not synonymous with 'asylum-seeker,' a person seeking permanent refugee status or asylum that has yet to be granted.

Robert Radin

Robert Radin

Robert Radin is the director of citizenship and immigration services at a social-service agency in Massachusetts and the author of the new memoir 'Teaching English to Refugees' (Ibidem/Columbia University Press). Follow him on Twitter at @RobertRadin1

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