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asylum-seekers

An asylum seeker embraces an immigration volunteer upon her arrival to the United States on February 26, 2021, in Brownsville, Texas. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

We Need to Help Asylum-Seekers, Not Traumatize Them

When asylum-seekers—who, like refugees, are fleeing serious threats to their life or freedom—enter the U.S., we do all we can to ensure they fail.

One woman, a refugee, arrived in the United States in February. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, she lived most of her life in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Although she still has some family at the camp, she has a job, receives resettlement services and lives with her husband in the U.S.

Another woman—an asylum-seeker and single mother from Honduras—fled after violent sex and gang attacks in her hometown. Instead of offering safety when she sought asylum, the U.S. held her at a detention center for two months and separated her from her child before releasing her shackled with an ankle monitor and without permission to work.

To meet our legal, international and moral obligations, we must change our entire perspective—this is not a “law and order" issue but a humanitarian one, and it needs a humanitarian response.

Both lives changed forever, yet due to their different statuses—refugee and asylum-seeker—they were treated differently. One refugee came to the U.S. and received legal status and refugee assistance. One asylum-seeker took the dangerous trip here, only to be incarcerated at an immigration detention center and separated from her child.

In 1951, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, outlined the rights of refugees and the legal obligations countries must take to protect them, clearly stating refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This treaty granted people with refugee status federal recognition, a baseline of protection and assistance to help them start their new life.

But when asylum-seekers—who, like refugees, are fleeing serious threats to their life or freedom—enter the U.S., we do all we can to ensure they fail. In fact, as Vice President Kamala Harris said recently, America tells them to come “legally"or not make the trip at all. And for those who do make the dangerous journey looking for refuge, we throw them in prisonlike facilities, don't appoint them lawyers and put them into a system where deportation is the most likely outcome.

President Joe Biden has issued executive orders that recognize that our current system fails to uphold our international obligations, but we have yet to see real, concrete action on refugees or asylum-seekers. To meet our legal, international and moral obligations, we must change our entire perspective—this is not a “law and order" issue but a humanitarian one, and it needs a humanitarian response.

Asylum-seekers should not face a complex, traumatizing legal process behind bars; they should be able to reside with their families and sponsors while their applications for asylum are considered.

Rather than making every effort to exclude people from safety through programs such as Title 42, a rule put in place by President Donald Trump and continued under Biden to refuse asylum-seekers entry on the basis of public health, or expedited removal, which is a summary screening process that refuses asylum access and often results in deportation without the person ever seeing a judge, we should embrace the due process that is a cornerstone of our society and ensure each person seeking protection has access to the information and resources they need—like lawyers—for a meaningful day in court.

Providing asylum-seekers with the same support refugees receive is a start, but make no mistake, the refugee process needs a reset, too. Refugees spend years in camps, stuck in legal limbo while awaiting a decision on their lives. Trump dismantled our refugee-resettlement system so thoroughly that Biden initially expected the U.S. to resettle fewer than 15,000 refugees this year—the lowest number in decades, despite campaign promises to resettle up to 125,000.

In 1951, world leaders laid out lofty obligations for people fleeing persecution and seeking safety. Seventy years later, we're still struggling to provide dignity and basic human rights for thousands of asylum-seekers. Hearing our vice president, whose family came to this country as immigrants, say to the people of Guatemala, “don't come,"was devastating.

We've regressed, misstepped and violated the rights of those hoping to find a safe home. We need to do better, and we should start by living up to the aspirations set forth by leaders before us.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Marisol B. Girela

Marisol B. Girela is a RAICES clinical social worker who oversees the refugee resettlement programs, the community-donation center and clinical services program in San Antonio.

miriam

Miriam Camero

Miriam Camero is the RAICES vice president of social programs.

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