In ordinary times, my colleagues and I sit at our desks in places like Malaysia, Turkey and Nauru. Across from us, three feet away, sits an applicant for asylum – sometimes alone, sometimes with a spouse or children. Some have waited decades for this moment. We review their files – filled with detailed accounts of their lives, biometric data, family histories and more – and listen to their testimonies. They are the luckiest of the most vulnerable, because after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees referred them for resettlement in the United States, they were granted this interview. Out of the tens of millions of refugees worldwide, less than 0.25 percent are resettled in another country.
Even on the listening side of the desk, each story of assault and injury, the fear and grief in people’s voices, shook me to my core. Still, I always considered the refugee corps a dream job. It has been a privilege to safeguard our country’s legacy as a haven for the persecuted.
Right now, though, our desks sit empty, and our lifesaving work has come to a standstill. The past few years of executive orders, regulations and proclamations have made it virtually impossible for refugee and asylum officers to do our jobs and offer protection to those who need it. With the added danger of the coronavirus, and the Trump administration seizing the opportunity to impose even more restrictions, my colleagues and I fear that we won’t get to return to those desks – and that America has abandoned its promise to protect the world’s most vulnerable.
Across the previous five presidencies, three Republican and two Democratic, the United States has admitted more refugees than the rest of the world combined. Of the 4 million refugees resettled worldwide since 1980, we took in 3 million. These were people who had a well-founded fear of persecution or death in their home countries on account of a characteristic like race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and whose governments were unable or unwilling to protect them.
That all changed beginning in January 2017. One of President Donald Trump’s very first acts in office was to issue Executive Order No. 13769, often called the “travel ban.” It suspended the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, drastically lowered the admissions quota and barred all individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries, including an indefinite ban on Syrian nationals. It unleashed extreme vetting measures, causing massive delays for thousands of vulnerable people in the refugee pipeline. Some people already approved for admission were literally pulled from their flights to the United States.
In 2019, the administration set the next fiscal year’s annual refugee quota at a historic low of 18,000 – down from 30,000 the previous year and 110,000 in the previous administration. The actual admissions numbers have been far lower. With our program essentially grounded, refugee officers returned stateside. We were redirected to support our colleagues in the asylum division, which focuses on those seeking protection at or within our borders.
Collectively, we were told to implement restrictive new policies, expressly designed to deter people from seeking refuge. The Migrant Protection Protocols,for example, resulted in more than 60,000 asylum seekers being sent to Mexico in 2019, after fleeing the extreme brutality of MS-13 and the 18th Street gang in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Left to live in squalor without any protection, they are preyed upon by cartels and gangs as they wait, sometimes months, for an elusive court date before an immigration judge.
The pandemic put refugees and asylum seekers in even more desperate straits, as the United States paused refugee resettlement. Many already interviewed and accepted for resettlement in the U.S. now live stateless at the margins of cities, towns and villages where they have no rights or legal status, or in overcrowded refugee camps. Around the world, in places including Jordan, Kenya and Bangladesh, refugee camps are bursting at the seams. People there are unable to practice social distancing, and soap and water are limited.
Meanwhile, at our borders, Customs and Border Protection has turned away thousands of vulnerable people since March, without due process. Some applicants showing symptoms of the coronavirus were deported with no regard for safety measures (such as testing), causing outbreaks in the countries from which they had fled. Others languish in crowded detention facilities, even though many of them pose no security threat and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the discretion to release them. By law, children must be let out after 20 days of incarceration. But rather than release them with their parents, our government has presented these families with an agonizing choice: Either have their children released, indefinitely separated from their parents – or remain locked up together in these facilities, many of which have already witnessed coronavirus outbreaks.
Amid all this, in June, the administration proposed 161 pages of sweeping regulations that would gut asylum and refugee law. Certain provisions, for example, drastically narrow the definitions of persecution and torture; others raise certain burdens of proof to nearly unreachable standards and redefine what constitutes the protected grounds of political opinion and membership in a particular social group. Still others could disqualify applicants if they made a mistake on their tax filings, or took two or more layover flights on their way here. In July, the administration proposed yet another new policy, allowing the United States to deny asylum to applicants if they come from any country with an outbreak of a highly contagious disease. (Public health experts have said this would serve no legitimate public health purpose.) It’s difficult to see how anyone could qualify for protection under this tangle of new rules, once they’re implemented.
Years of tightening restrictions have made it harder to obtain a wide range of legal immigration benefits, causing applications to plummet and, with them, the user fees that fund U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services operations. Now, the pandemic has placed our agency on the brink of bankruptcy, and 70 percent of our workforce faces an indefinite furlough unless Congress intervenes. Without emergency funding, only a skeleton crew will remain to administer America’s immigration services system – resulting in even greater backlogs in the processing of applications for benefits including asylum, green cards, work permits and citizenship.
Our nation has an ethical and legal responsibility to protect those who seek refuge here. Instead, we have expended vast resources on preventing people from entering the country and deporting people who are already here. If the current administration’s policies continue unchecked, there will no longer be a pathway for refugees to have a new beginning in the United States. Even if a different presidential administration tried to change course, I fear that it would take many years to reverse the damage and rebuild our capacity to protect refugees. Many people will lose their lives before then.
In the closing words of his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan described our country as a “shining city upon a hill”: “If there had to be city walls,” he said in 1989, “the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” That is still something most Americans believe in.
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Marks, an asylum training officer with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), writes here as a shop steward for Local 1924, American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees of the USCIS Asylum and Refugee Officer Corps.