The Strangers in Our Midst:
Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers
by Joan M. Maruskin
The United States is a country of immigrants whose stories have shaped our
history. Immigrants from around the world seeking new lives and safety have
found their way to our shores and borders and become a vital part of this nation
and its culture. As a result, the United States has long been seen
However, since September 11, 2001, we have begun to close our doors to immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants as part of our efforts to increase our "homeland security." This is reflected in laws, presently in effect or being considered, and government practices that target specific populations, while leaving other populations almost untouched.
The US Patriot Act, which passed shortly after 9/11, gives broad power to the government to arrest, incarcerate, and deport immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in the interest of homeland security, without having to detail the reasons for these actions. This has resulted in the breakup of hundreds of American families. Loved ones have been deported, often without warning.
The US refugee program was shut down completely for months following 9/11 and is only now beginning to rebound. Unfortunately, although the Bush Admin-istration agreed to admit 70,000 refugees in fiscal year 2004, the budget allowed for the admission of only 43,000. Unless additional funding is allocated, refugees will remain in their camps or urban locations until 2006 or, possibly, as in the case of those who were ready to travel in 2001, will never be resettled. Although it is true there has been fraud in refugee identification, it is often the case of a desperate refugee wanting to include a "family member" who is not a blood relative in a family that is to be resettled. Ties between refugees and terrorism have not been documented, but the program has suffered in the name of national security. Less than one percent of the world's refugees are ever resettled—and that percentage is shrinking.
Asylum seekers have been forced to flee persecution because of religion, race, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a social group. However, their situations make it necessary for them to travel immediately to another country to ask for asylum. According to international law, this is a legal action. Once in a safe country, they are to be given an opportunity to apply for asylum. Since the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) was passed in 1996, asylum seekers have risked expedited removal and detention upon entering the United States. If they ask for asylum on arrival at a port of entry, the immigration officer makes what very well might be a life or death decision. If the officer does not believe immigrants have grounds for asylum, they are immediately deported to their home countries—which can result in persecution or death. If they are permitted to stay, the US immigration process sends asylum seekers to a Department of Homeland Security detention center to seek asylum from behind bars. Although they have committed no crime, they are put in prisons or prison-like detention centers with criminals or with immigrants who have criminal convictions. Often, prison conditions for asylum seekers are inferior to prison conditions for US citizens who have committed crimes, because asylum seekers do not have the same rights as citizens.
First, the refugees must prove they have a pressing need for asylum. The government provides no legal assistance. Pro bono attorneys help as much as possible, but the great majority of asylum seekers never see an attorney.
It is very difficult to receive asylum. According to a 2005 study by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, only 2 percent of incarcerated asylum seekers are granted asylum, compared to 25 percent of those who seek asylum but are not incarcerated. The process requires having proof of a "well-founded fear of persecution" if returned home. In May of this year, the 109th Congress passed the Real ID Act, which was attached to a 2005 emergency supplemental spending bill. It will make it almost impossible for a person to receive asylum. Among other very difficult requirements, asylum seekers will have to prove the "central reason" for the persecution. For example, a woman would have to prove that she was raped for reasons pertaining to her asylum claim, not simply because the persecutor felt like raping her. If she could not do so, she would be refused asylum.
In addition, asylum can be denied if a person is deemed to have supported a terrorist organization. Someone who gave a terrorist group money demanded under duress to save a family member's life would not be able to access the asylum system because he or she had, by that action, supported terrorism. The present asylum system, if used effectively and systematically, screens out persons without valid asylum claims. The Real ID Act increases the obstacles to asylum and affects migrants by increasing the militarization of our southern border through more fencing and increased numbers of Border Patrol agents.
Immigration reform is becoming one of the leading immigration issues. Legislation will result in sweeping changes for undocumented immigrants, who make up a vital part of the workforce, particularly in entry-level jobs in the US agricultural and service industries. Immigration reform and a path to legalization are bringing together churches, businesses, and labor unions, which recognize the importance of migrants and are seeking to make certain that immigration reform has high standards that protect the United States, its citizens, and immigrants.
A large part of the advocacy community is working for immigration reform that would legalize deserving undocumented immigrants and provide a path to citizenship; reduce family backlogs and guarantee family unity; guarantee job mobility and worker's rights; and propose a program for future migration.
Legalization does not mean amnesty. Any number of conditions could be placed on access to legalization. For example, legalization could be open to workers who have been here for a designated time period, paid taxes, and other specified qualifications.
Family unity is a cornerstone of our society, and it is most important that workers and their families be able to stay together. There are current backlogs in our system that prevent families from being together for many years.
One positive section of the Real ID Act removed a cap on the number of asylum seekers able to adjust to permanent status each year. This will reduce the backlog and help family reunification. Once asylees become legal permanent residents, they are permitted to make applications for close family members to join them in this country.
Workers should be able to change jobs when circumstances warrant and receive the same labor protections as US workers. Pres-ently, immigrant workers are easy to exploit. They have no worker benefits and often their immigration status forces them to continue to work in substandard conditions. Government statistics show that, rather than take jobs away from US citizens, immigrants help to increase the number of jobs available by their presence in our economy.
The development of a new worker visa system, which will permit workers to enter legally, is very important. Migrant workers are crucial to the US economy and lifestyle. However, it is important that they be allowed a visa that offers an opportunity for seasonal migration, should they choose to return to their countries when the work season is over, or an opportunity to stay and become integrated as productive legal residents.
Contrary to popular belief, not all people want to remain in the United States. In fact, large numbers of immigrants return to their countries of origin each year. Many migrant workers would greatly prefer to do seasonal work, returning to their homes and families for the winter season and coming back the next season. Unfortunately, the militarization of the border be- tween the United States and Mexico makes it almost impossible for the migration cycle to continue, and workers who risk death in the desert to come here to work must remain here. Presently, the fence at our southern border results in the death of at least one migrant per day. Migrants are crossing our borders for the same reasons that many of our current citizens' ancestors did, to find work that provides a better life for their families.
Although the fence along our southern border was constructed to keep out undocumented workers, it has not done so. Big business continues to recruit workers south of the border; so workers continue to come, traveling through ever more dangerous parts of the desert. Unfortunately, it is the workers who are punished and deported. Less than 2 percent of businesses hiring undocumented workers are fined or penalized. Immigration reform should result in a migration system that is fair and just and recognizes migrant workers' value to this country.
The administration has considered a worker's visa that would permit employment for three years and renewal for another three years, after which the worker would have to leave the country permanently. But some argue that this would merely encourage undocumented people to remain here without status, since many workers, having had families and laid down roots in the United States, would not wish to uproot themselves and return to their countries, jobless and with no future. Rather, advocacy groups are seeking workers' visas that would be beneficial to the workers, the businesses, and the United States and put an end to the deaths at the southern border.
As a side note, although we are fencing in our southern border, the northern border is basically open, with easy access for persons choosing to enter the country. This raises many questions, especially as immigration reform and the actions to end terrorism have been focused on refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and certain immigrant populations. In the meantime, the immigration visa systems, which permitted the majority of the 9/11 terrorists to enter the country, remain basically the same.
Including the Stranger
It is crucial that our borders remain secure. However, there seems to be a move to exclude groups selectively that is not necessarily based on whether they are a threat to our security. This selective exclusion is in direct opposition to the biblical mandate to provide hospitality to the stranger. It neglects the scriptural teachings that widows, orphans, and aliens should receive protection, welcome, and care.
We are instructed to treat the stranger as we treat our citizens. As followers of Jesus, himself a refugee asylum seeker, we are called to extend to the alien the same hospitality that was extended to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus when they sought asylum in Egypt. We have to protect our country's borders and at the same time open the borders of our hearts and our minds to see Jesus in each stranger's face. As they look back at us, they too are looking for the face of Jesus, who said in Matthew 25:40 (paraphrased), "Whatever you did to the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did to me."
Joan M. Maruskin is the Washington Representative for Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program.
Date posted: Jul 08, 2005