Opinion | Immigration

Joe Biden can save the soul of our nation with these asylum reforms

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Advocates have called on Joe Biden to reverse a number of policies under the current administration which attack the asylum process of the United States. These include the "death to asylum" rule scheduled to be in effect this week but has been blocked by a federal judge. The rule would make it incredibly difficult to receive asylum with more eligibility bars that further restrict the narrow refugee definition. Such measures reflect a break from the rule of law, human rights, and international obligations.

But even before Donald Trump had wreaked havoc on the asylum system, it failed to protect many vulnerable individuals trying to escape violence and seek the refuge which our law promises. Contrary to alarmist claims, the odds are against asylum seekers. If Biden truly wants to save the soul of our nation, as he claimed during his campaign, he must do more than scrap current policies and tackle these four asylum issues.

First, Biden must resolve a backlog of over one million pending cases in the federal immigration courts, where most individuals apply for asylum. This mess originated when George Bush increased interior enforcement, which skyrocketed under Barack Obama then the current administration. Biden promised an excellent solution to overcome this hurdle with hiring more asylum officers to adjudicate pending cases. This would take cases off the overwhelmed dockets of federal immigration judges then reduce some of the arbitrary discrimination in the asylum process.

Under current rules, only asylum seekers who overstay their visas and children on their own are allowed to apply at the asylum office. If their cases are denied, they head to court to appeal. In contrast, adults and accompanied children crossing the border illegally are barred against consideration at the asylum office. They have to apply in immigration court in what is often an adversarial and traumatic process.

International law prohibits punishing individuals who flee their homes for crossing borders illegally rather than obtaining a visa, which is difficult for most from developing countries with our policies. Accompanied children hold the same developmental characteristics and similar vulnerabilities as children on their own and should also be treated properly. Thus, giving all asylum seekers the right to present their claims at the asylum office could also let the United States meet its international obligations.

Second, Biden must end the terrible practice of detaining asylum seekers, including mothers with children. Detaining asylum seekers without cause is prohibited with international law. It is also dangerous since it allows the coronavirus to spread. The answer is to release asylum seekers while they await their hearings. Over 85 percent of immigrants attend their hearings, and that portion rises when they have legal representation.

Third, the federal government must provide universal legal representation at no cost to all asylum seekers as other countries do. This would not only ensure they show up to their interviews but also that they have a real shot to claim protection in the asylum process, where it is almost impossible to succeed without an attorney with all the convoluted rules.

Fourth, the current administration dismissed the established case law on persecution that allows victims of domestic violence to claim asylum. We must not only scrap these draconian changes under Trump but also more broadly adjust course to remedy the federal failure of the United States to protect the groups of individuals trying to escape violence.

With the narrow refugee definition, the United States has regularly denied asylum to children fleeing Central America at the hands of gang members that forcibly recruit minors. The United Nations Refugee Agency considers them eligible for refugee status, and we should do the same to protect the most vulnerable groups of individuals fleeing their countries.

If Biden truly wants to save the soul of our nation, he must ensure strong compliance with international law by dismantling not only the barriers in access to asylum pushed by Trump but also those that existed before. He must have the political will to champion justice and human rights around the world that have been under attack for the last four years.

Chiara Galli is a postdoctoral fellow in sociology with Cornell University.

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