To be clear: Seeking asylum at the border is not illegal

Once again, this administration is seeking to block people from entering this country based on unsubstantiated claims that they threaten our safety. Much like the 2017 Muslim ban, which failed in federal court, the administration's policies will impact people who have no criminal history at all and who are, in fact, victims of crime with a legal right to seek protection. 

To be clear: seeking asylum at the border is not illegal, but turning asylum seekers away is illegal. That exactly what this executive order would seek to do. Providing a bridge to safety to those seeking protection is a responsibility our nation took on after the Holocaust. Despite the rhetoric and policy efforts of this administration, U.S. and international law explicitly state that we must offer individuals a fair opportunity to request asylum. 

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Contrary to the president’s assertion that the asylum system is riddled with abuse, it is in fact an arduous process complete with extensive examination and thorough background checks. Individuals approaching the border must first alert a Customs and Border Patrol agent that they are afraid to return to their home countries. This is not easy for anyone given language barriers, fatigue and hunger. Those who have experienced human trafficking, rape, and domestic violence have an especially difficult time communicating these fears to armed, uniformed border guards. As a result, only a fraction of those who could be eligible for protection are even referred to a screening called a “credible fear” interview conducted by an asylum officer.

The majority of asylum seekers do not have legal counsel, have not been given any information about immigration law, and have not had a chance to explain their experiences to trained trauma specialists. This puts them at a severe disadvantage.

Still, only if a survivor makes it past this point can she be seen by an immigration judge to present testimony and evidence in support of her asylum case.

This administration continues to perpetuate the narrative that asylum seekers are opportunists — but the countless stories I have heard from immigrant survivors of gender-based violence fleeing unspeakable danger in their home countries paint a harrowingly different picture.

One mother who endured horrific abuse in Honduras because of the political party she supported as her uncle was running for mayor. Gangs sought revenge by claiming her 15-year-old daughter as their property, raping her as she was headed to school. Knowing her 9-year old daughter might soon face this same fate, she left for the United States.

Another mother suffered severe domestic violence, including beatings while pregnant, but then was separated from her young son and could not comfort him when he became emotionally distraught without her.

For years, bona-fide asylum seekers have been released through parole or use of alternatives to detention. These are cost-effective ways of ensuring compliance with the law while also allowing survivors to work with lawyers and counselors. If the administration moves forward with its plan to stop releasing detainees, mothers and children may lose the opportunity to collect evidence of the violence they have suffered and locate competent legal counsel to represent them. 

Studies have shown that the best way to ensure individuals with pending asylum applications appear at immigration hearings is to secure legal representation for them. Yet, the administration's policies rely heavily on incarceration and expanding tent cities that will cause costs to skyrocket

The anticipated executive order could force vulnerable women and children into one of two scenarios that no one should endure: back into the violent and potentially deadly situations they fled, or into costly, inhumane immigration incarceration centers for months or even years 

These women are victims, not criminals. They are survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, rape, and child marriage, among other abuses, and deserve our protection. They had the courage to seek safety. Will we have the courage to protect them? 

Archi Pyati is chief of policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on helping immigrant women and children.