US Immigration Policy: Asylum-Seekers and Refugees

By Barnett, Don | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

US Immigration Policy: Asylum-Seekers and Refugees


Barnett, Don, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


Until well into the second half of the twentieth century, immigration into the USA was largely from Europe, the continent from which the founders of the United States had themselves come. However, in recent decades this pattern has been reversed in order to favor non-European immigrants. More recently international resolutions have obligated the US and other participating countries to accept "asylum-seekers," essentially depriving these countries of control over their own immigration and future demographic composition. The author her considers the impact of these changes on US Immigration policy.

Key Words: Refugees, asylum-seekers, US immigration, US Immigration and Naturalization Service, US Refugee Protection Act, U.N. Refugee Convention, UN Convention Against Torture.

Asylum remains one of the least understood policy issues in America today. Shifting from a basis of largely serving foreign policy goals to one that serves global humanitarian aims, it is more complex than ever. It should be fertile ground for serious public discussion, combining as it does several current issues - immigration, human rights, foreign relations, the influence of special interest lobbies, the decline of national sovereignty, and the rise of international law. Despite this, public awareness of the issue does not get beyond the occasional humaninterest story of individual asylum seekers and their struggles. Issues include:

Just seven days after the September 11 attacks, the administration recommended the admission of 70,000 refugees for fiscal year 2002. Though the proposed refugee quota was finalized prior to September 11, the document containing the proposal was issued by the National Security Council after September 11 with no footnotes or reference to the events of that day, according to a State Department source who wishes to remain anonymous. Shortly after, refugee admission was temporarily halted pending a review of the refugee selection process and a review of security for those federal government personnel who travel the world considering candidates for the US program. Refugee admission has resumed with more in-depth background checks for refugees and a scaled back outreach program in areas of the world considered risky.

The events of September 11 cleared away some of the clouds obscuring refugee and asylum immigration, but what became the story was not news about a refugee program that had been on autopilot for years, but the "moratorium" that had been imposed on the admission of women and children refugees. Some experts say the program will bring in fewer than originally planned this year, perhaps 45,000 to 50,000, but with time the program will return to original levels. In fact, with the war on terrorism, it might even grow larger in coming years.

Admission of asylum seekers is also likely to continue at historically high levels after a brief slowdown. The terms "asylum seeker" and 64 refugee", often used interchangeably, have distinct and separate definitions in US law. The 1980 Refugee Act (Public Law 96-212) incorporating the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, defined a refugee or asylum seeker as someone who is unwilling to return to his or her country out of a "well-founded fear" of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." A formal infrastructure of federal and state agencies and private charities functioning as federal contractors helps intending refugees initiate requests for "status," arranges transportation to the United States, and navigates the maze of health, welfare, and other services available to refugees upon arrival in the United States.

Unlike many refugees, have managed to get to US shores on their own, most commonly on a non-immigrant visa such as a tourist or work visa. Asylum claims can be and are made from US territories such as Guam. About a quarter of asylum petitions are made by those who arrive at a US port of entry without valid documents. …

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