by Kari Burns

The right to apply for asylum is a well-established, fundamental human right for those seeking protection from political persecution and human rights violations. Last month, the Trump administration’s series of unconstitutional anti-immigration measures escalated into legislation that effectively abolishes the asylum system altogether. Taking advantage of our country’s pandemic crisis, his administration is attacking a system emblematic of democracy, already a fragile and compromised institution.

The proposed amendments ... make obtaining asylum all but impossible for the majority of immigrants...

The proposed amendments housed in a 161-page document make obtaining asylum all but impossible for the majority of immigrants, particularly the most vulnerable. In a conversation with Mother Jones, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, characterized the regulations as “Kafkaesque,” stating, “Every single one of these things are overlapping tools to ensure that no one wins asylum.”

Some of the more outrageous changes include the following: denial of claims based on gender and/or sexual orientation, the absence of a court hearing or testimony, and further obstacles to obtaining refugee status. The new rules are so all-encompassing they could even affect pending applications.

Denying claims based on gender would “rewrite long-standing legal precedent and shut the door to safety for women and girls fleeing rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse,” wrote Nickole Miller in a Washington Post opinion piece. Categorically denying asylum based on gender legally sanctions and continues the cycle of abuse, opening the door for future policy undermining women’s rights. The proposed regulatory changes also remove protections for the LGBTQ+ community, disregarding violent persecution if applicants are deemed non-compliant with new severe requirements that are incompatible with most people’s lived realities.

Filing for asylum is already an onerous, lengthy and complex process, particularly when compounded with trauma. Testimony in court is one of the most important processes for an applicant to prove credible fear of persecution. As with any government or legal document, applications are confusing and difficult to fill out even for native English speakers. As with the other proposed changes, allowing judges to reject cases based on the application alone affects the most vulnerable individuals: “Such a change will be nearly fatal for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have no lawyer to help them with their claim in court. Data shows that those with a lawyer are already five times more likely to win asylum than those without one,” wrote Miller.

Additionally, the proposed mandates create new barriers to the asylum process. Anyone who makes a mistake filing taxes, another complex and confusing process, is disqualified. Travelers with two or more layovers in different countries are also disqualified, essentially penalizing those who cannot afford a direct flight. Applicants must also wait 150 days before seeking employment authorization—five months without income to support their families.

...the fact that the very concept of asylum is under attack is extremely troubling.

While the policies will most likely be scrutinized and are subject to change, the fact that the very concept of asylum is under attack is extremely troubling. While immigration legislation sits in appeals courts, people’s lives are destroyed in real time. The administration is using anti-immigration sentiment to propel their agenda, a desperate appeal to their base before the election. However, what many opponents to immigration do not acknowledge is the role the U.S. has played in creating the tragic situations persecuted people are fleeing.

As with any region, the current crises facing Central and South America have complex historical roots, going back to Spanish conquest and colonization. However, in recent history, the U.S. has played an extensive role in the region. As Mark Tseng-Putterman posits, “Since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 declared the U.S.’s right to exercise an ‘international police power’ in Latin America, the U.S. has cut deep wounds throughout the region, leaving scars that will last for generations to come.” There is no “us and them”—we are inextricably linked to global repercussions, and in order to implement wise and just immigration policy, we must understand how we bear responsibility.

The U.S. deposed a popular democratic government in Guatemala in 1954; in June of 2009, the freely-elected government of Honduras was overthrown in a coup that the United States strongly endorsed. It is significant and probably not coincidental that these are two of the three countries with which “Safe Third Country” agreements have been reached, requiring immigrants to seek refuge there instead of the United States. The legality of these agreements is being challenged in courts.

As Tseng-Putterman asserts, “The liberal rhetoric of inclusion and common humanity is insufficient: we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States.” By not acknowledging our own role in these circumstances, we are far more willing to support policies that punish those oppressed.

We are responsible for and dependent upon each other, now more than ever.

The calamitous effects of improvident U.S. foreign policy are not limited to Central and South America. Refugees from around the world flee the devastating impacts of crippling economic sanctions. The leaders who are ostensibly being punished for violating human rights are not the ones who bear the brunt of these policies. We are responsible for and dependent upon each other, now more than ever.

Karilea Burns got her Master’s in Literature from the University of Colorado at Denver. She studied social justice as an undergraduate, and is pursuing a career in social work with Boulder County Family and Child Services.