Our Founders envisioned a robust asylum and refugee process

Our Founders envisioned a robust asylum and refugee process
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The Fourth of July is the quintessential American holiday, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence with flags, fireworks, parades and picnics. Many Americans can paraphrase the most famous lines from the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Especially relevant on this day is another part of the Declaration that lambasted King George’s obstruction of laws the colonies were passing to encourage the immigration and naturalization of foreigners. Yes, immigration policy and the pathway to citizenship were controversial issues in 1776. As the signers of the Declaration simply put, “The circumstances of our emigration and settlement here” are core principles that founded our great nation.

Fast-forwarding to 2018, what distinguishes President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE from our past is that no president or major presidential candidate ever made anti-immigrant policies a centerpiece of  his or her agenda. Although some presidents occasionally raised the issue of reforming immigration laws, and Congress enacted race-based immigration laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Trump has taken immigration policy to new extremes. His pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, became staples of his stump speeches and remain central to his presidential rhetoric and policy positions.


Today’s zero tolerance toward asylum seekers arriving at our southern border and stingy refugee admissions stand in stark contrast to the values upon which our nation was founded.

To be fair, the United States has always romanticized its welcoming of the refugee within a deep-seated strain of xenophobia. Rarely has a majority of Americans supported the admission of refugees or asylees during a refugee crisis until the Syrian refugee crisis crested in 2017. My review of 70 years’ worth of public opinion data on U.S. attitudes during mass asylum crises found that there were only two previous instances in which the majority of Americans surveyed did not oppose the admission of the refugees or asylees: Vietnamese refugees immediately after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and Central American children seeking asylum in the summer of 2014.

Even as the Congress was celebrating passage of the landmark Refugee Act of 1980, an overwhelming portion of Americans surveyed (71 percent to 75 percent) expressed opposition to U.S. policy of admitting most Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime. Trump is clearly stoking this xenophobic strain in the American psyche, energizing his base with draconian policy pronouncements.

Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, however, are being met by a growing number of Americans who support more generous immigration policies, and many of them are using civic engagement and public protests to raise their voices. A poll released June 26, 2018, by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that 59 percent of those surveyed oppose passing a law that would prevent refugees from entering the United States. More striking is that only 22 percent of those PRRI surveyed support the Trump administration policy treating families entering the country without permission as criminals and thus enabling the government to take the children from their parents.

The president’s tactic of criminalizing asylum seekers is having some effect on attitudes. A Rasmussen poll conducted at the end of June 2018, using more pointed question wording that emphasized illegal entry and “parents breaking the law,” pushed support for Trump’s policy up to 54 percent of those surveyed. This finding reveals the importance of how the characterization of foreign nationals shapes public opinion.  

Many Americans likely do not know that we have laws that enable border agents to treat asylum seekers differently from illegal entrants whose admission would not be in the national interest. If increasing the number of asylum officers and immigration judges along the border went hand-in-glove with border security resources, there would not be a bottleneck of asylum seekers awaiting their hearings. Similarly, those deemed illegal entrants would be returned home more efficiently. As so many other experts and observers have stated, the current crisis on the border is one that the Trump administration created with its misguided policies.

I would never advocate open borders and have made the case elsewhere for a well-managed system of immigration. A key component of good immigration governance is a robust asylum and refugee process that is generous in its priorities, thorough in its review, and expeditious in its processing. We have provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act for such asylum and refugee procedures. The Trump administration is ignoring our law and taking the radical view that due process of law should not apply to people who come to the United States seeking asylum.

Last week, there was another blow to the foundations our democracy: a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court discounted the religious freedom provided in the First Amendment. Five justices relied on a thin veneer of national security arguments to justify a travel ban that the president himself repeatedly called a “Muslim ban.” The justices seemed oblivious to the rigorous national security screenings that consular and Homeland Security officials conduct on all foreign nationals wishing to come to the United States.

We can only hope that Congress steps up to its responsibility to provide checks and balances on the Trump administration. Maybe then we will enforce immigration law in the manner that actually does make America great, as the signers of the Declaration of Independence envisioned.

In the meantime, the spirit of 1776 remains vibrant in America. It is inspiring a new generation of Americans to participatory democracy, public protests and civic engagement.  

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. She is writing a book about the legislative drive to end race- and nationality-based immigration.