What explains variation in U.S. asylum approval rates across countries of origin? Previous research has found that humanitarian factors and diplomatic relations play an important role in shaping asylum decisions. This article examines the impact of domestic politics. The authors find that media and congressional attention play an important role in influencing how the executive branch makes enforcement decisions. Popular attention to asylum increases the importance of humanitarian concerns relative to instrumental factors. The effect of congressional attention depends on whether asylum is seen as an enforcement or humanitarian issue. The importance of these factors has also changed over time.
Keywords: immigration policy; asylum; executive-legislative relations; domestic sources of foreign policy; U.S. foreign policy
The making and enforcement of asylum policy reflects the multifaceted nature of immigration policy in advanced industrial states. At first glance, humanitarian admissions criteria should be responsive to the needs of the applicant-both international law and domestic legislation in the United States and other liberal democracies provide protection for persons who flee their country in fear of persecution. Yet foreign policy goals and domestic demands for immigration control may also influence asylum decisions, and previous research confirms that U.S. asylum approval rates reflect not only humanitarian concerns but also military, economic, and diplomatic relations with countries of origin (Rosenblum and Salehyan 2004). Moreover, as the unprecedented public demonstrations in the United States over immigration policy in 2006 indicate, these issues-which raise the question of who is to be part of the polity-are likely to be debated for years to come.
Political asylum is designed to protect migrants who escape persecution in their countries of origin and seek humanitarian protection once they are physically present within a host state. The asylum seeker's right of nonrefoulement, or of not being forcibly returned to unsafe conditions in one's country of origin, was among the first internationally recognized human rights following World War II.1 The issue is often contentious because demand for asylum tends to conflict with limited tolerance for immigration in host states, especially because asylum applicants are not subject to the same positive recruitment criteria as other types of immigrants (e.g., family connections, employability). And as most developed states have closed their doors to many types of voluntary migration, some prospective migrants have fabricated persecution claims ("false asylum") to gain entry to otherwise closed states (though see Gibney 2000). Thus, during the 1990s, asylum applications rose to almost 150,000 per year in the United States and exceeded 400,000 per year in Germany; and political asylum has become a highly contentious policy area throughout the industrialized world (Keely and Russell 1994).
In this article, we investigate how potentially conflicting humanitarian and "instrumental" determinants of U.S. asylum admissions are affected by domestic politics. How do popular pressures and congressional oversight affect enforcement decisions by the executive branch? On one hand, the popular perception that immigration is "out of control" has gathered steam throughout the industrialized world, provoking a backlash against relatively liberal admissions policies (Cornelius et al. 2004). As a result, domestic attention to immigration issues may cause policy makers to enforce tougher restrictions on the number of entrants.
On the other hand, executives tend to view migration in part as an instrumental "tool of foreign policy," while legislators and some popular groups are more likely to emphasize humanitarian goals (Rosenblum 2004). As refugee and human rights issues become more salient to domestic audiences, it may become difficult for the president to impose his foreign policy bias on the de jure humanitarian arena of asylum admissions. …