How activists can defeat Trump’s latest assault on asylum seekersRoundup
tags: immigration, Trump, asylum
Carly Goodman is a historian of immigration and a co-editor of the Post's Made By History section.
S. Deborah Kang is the author of "The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 19717-1954."
Yael Schacher, an immigration historian, has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard and works as Senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International.
Since the Second World War, the principle of refugee protection has been a staple of international politics. When Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, it brought the United States in line with its international obligations, creating a permanent system for refugee admissions. Under the act, asylum seekers’ claims were supposed to be considered individually and irrespective of country of origin or mode of entry. A person who flees their home country because of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion may seek asylum if they are on U.S. soil or at a port.
But when thousands of people fled right-wing regimes and civil unrest in El Salvador and Guatemala in the early 1980s and tried to make asylum claims in the United States, they were denied by Reagan administration officials. One reason was that these countries’ governments were closely allied with the United States during the Cold War. Another was that people from Central America weren’t white.
And so, the administration tried to classify people from these countries as “economic migrants” —— who didn’t qualify for asylum. The distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers was formalized in the late 1970s through a special program that rejected Haitian asylum seekers as economic migrants unworthy of protection. Eventually the Reagan administration adopted a “uniform” policy of detaining not only Haitian asylum seekers but also Salvadorans. Many nonwhite migrants from different parts of the world were funneled into detention and denied meaningful access to asylum.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Alan Nelson —— who would later work with the far-right Federation for American Immigration Reform to craft the harsh anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California in the 1990s — dismissed Central Americans’ claims as “frivolous.” The agency detained them under harsh conditions and coerced many to sign “voluntary departure” agreements, thereby denying their right to apply for asylum.