While we all have been looking at health care and crime, our refugee and asylum system has broken down. Policies that implicitly favor asylum applicants over refugees have exacerbated national security concerns, particularly in Haiti and Cuba, where people have taken to boats rather than seek admission as refugees. Moreover, the flow of refugees and asylum seekers around the world continues to eclipse any level that existed during the Cold War. Rwanda is but one recently publicized exodus that illustrates this fact.
The U.S. system of asylum was designed in the midst of the Cold War, and it no longer addresses our needs. It made sense when there were only 1,900 asylum applicants in the course of a year, as there were in 1973. But the policy made much less sense in 1989 when more than 100,000 individuals sought asylum in the United States. And certainly that policy does not make sense now, especially with a backlog of 500,000 asylum cases projected by the end of the fiscal year.
The system also fails to target the people fleeing persecution. Instead, the United States admits an unlimited number of asylum seekers who are able to travel to this country but admits relatively few people who seek entry as refugees, applying from outside this country. Thus, of the entire continent of Africa, only 4,400 refugees were accepted in 1991.
Once here, relatively few asylum seekers are ever removed from the country. This is not to say that they are granted asylum. In fact, a relatively small percentage of asylum seekers are determined to be fleeing persecution and are granted asylum status in the United States. In 1990, for example, fewer than 15 percent of the asylum cases reviewed were approved; a majority of the 85 percent denied asylum remained in the United States anyway. They remained here because our immigration system makes removal unlikely.
In short, the Refugee Act of 1980 has outlived its usefulness. A new system should build upon three basic principles:
* The system should explicitly state that American interests are paramount to the interests of any group seeking admission. Admission to the United States is not a right; it is a privilege.
* The admission of people fleeing persecution is a proud part of our American heritage and should be continued.
* We should recognize that the goal of refugee and asylum laws is to protect people from persecution, not to offer a shortcut through the normal immigration channels. The lines of people seeking to enter via our regular immigration system are affected by people who enter through the humanitarian channels of refugee and asylum. …