Asylum & Sanctuary

Op-Eds are organized chronologically, with the most recent publications listed first.

Jacobin | June 10, 2021

Rachel Ida Buff

Although she spoke as if she was merely canceling a dinner party, Harris’s excoriation of migrants not to come flies in the face of international as well as US law certifying the rights of migrants to claim asylum. The United States is a signatory to the 1967 United Nations High Council on Human Rights Protocol, which certified the right to cross a border in order to seek asylum from persecution. But successive administrations, from Reagan to Trump to Biden, have restricted and curtailed its practice, implementing the detention of asylum seekers and delimiting the conditions that count as persecution.

Before the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States was violating the human rights of asylum seekers, in particular the thousands of Haitians who arrived in Florida by boat. Instead of having their asylum cases heard they were systemically detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, denied due process in the immigration courts and threatened with deportation to the persecution they had fled.”


“The United States has both the obligation and capacity to protect asylum seekers. Abiding by this commitment is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do in terms of public health.”

Dissent Magazine | Summer 2020

Mae Ngai

There are over 70 million displaced persons in the world. Only 26 million of them are officially classified by the UN as 'refugees, yet they are all in need of assistance—not just humanitarian aid for survival but the chance to rebuild a meaningful life. The high burden of proof for asylum and restrictions on regular immigration means that the problems of undocumented migration and asylum are deeply connected. When migrants are denied asylum, those who elude removal become part of the undocumented population. The system is broken.

The New York Times | November 18, 2019

Yael Schacher

“Upholding the right of asylum seekers to work is an essential component of humanitarian protection … The arguments against this basic right, then and now — claiming that asylum seekers were frauds, that they were stealing jobs from Americans and that they needed to be deterred by any means — ring hollow.”

If asylum seekers are denied the ability to work legally, some will surely be, as the judge in Ramos put it, 'compel[ed] … to abandon [their] asylum applications and return to [their] native country. Others would be forced into the underground economy.

The Washington Post | February 11, 2019

Rachel Ida Buff

At the same historical moment that the United States granted refugee admissions for those fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the INS demonized Mexican migrants as unwanted aliens. These two linguistic poles have defined the debate over migrants in the United States ever since. The term refugee, allowing harbor for some migrants, afforded protections denied to those referred to by the racialized term illegal alien, which authorized ongoing campaigns against the presence of others.”

The Conversation | June 28, 2018

A. Naomi Paik

The U.S. military re-opened a Haitian refugee camp under the name Operation Sea Signal in 1994 that would eventually also hold Cuban migrants.

The story of Guantanamo shows that, once the U.S. establishes the infrastructure of prison camps for families, it can persist as prison camps for anyone. People who endured indefinite detention have described it as a form of torture – one that the U.S. now proposes to inflict on thousands of migrant families.

Made by History, The Washington Post | July 2, 2018

Carly Goodman

By characterizing asylum seekers as migrants, the government aimed to skirt its legal obligations to asylum seekers who didn’t serve its foreign-policy aims — and to bolster the U.S.-supported regime in El Salvador, which was fueling the violence so many thousands of people were fleeing. In addition, while the public had previously willingly accepted the resettlement of white, European refugees fleeing communism, the increasingly racist anti-immigrant politics of the 1980s framed the public’s understanding of these new asylum seekers. By portraying all migrants at the border as an economic threat...the Reagan administration helped build support for increasingly militarized border policies.

The Florida Bookshelf | August 30, 2018

Carl Lindskoog

The image of the poor, diseased, and dangerous Haitian has more far-reaching consequences as well. Haiti has long served as the 'whipping boy for nativists, xenophobes, and racists. If your objective is to cut off the flow of migration from majority poor and non-white countries, then invoking the specter of Haiti serves a useful purpose in frightening and activating your supporters. This is precisely what nativist groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) did in the 1980s and 1990s. They were seeking to block migrants and asylum seekers from places far beyond Haiti, but at a time when many Haitians were seeking asylum on American shores, they drew upon the well-worn negative stereotypes of Haitians to press for a change in immigration policy.

The Wall Street Journal | June 29, 2018

María Cristina García

The policy makers who crafted the 1980 Refugee Act never imagined that within a generation the U.S. would have a vast asylum bureaucracy. In passing the 1980 law, Congress sought to create a separate immigration track for the politically persecuted, many of them from communist countries, who were identified abroad for resettlement in the U.S. Legislators concerned themselves less with the comparatively smaller number of asylum seekers who requested protection at airports and other ports of entry.”

Dissent | Winter 2017

Mae Ngai

In more recent years, local governments have established explicit and de-facto immigration sanctuaries...Trump’s embrace of nativism was not just another box to check for a conservative campaign. It was a cold calculus to put protectionism—“immigration twinned with “unfair trade (especially from Mexico and China)—at the center of a strategy to stoke the resentment of white working-class and lower-middle-class people left behind by globalization.”


Oregon Humanities | April 2017

Elliott Young

What has become clear in the past few months is that sanctuary provides no protection to immigrants once they are caught up in the criminal justice system. An immigrant may live in a sanctuary state with multiple sanctuary cities and sanctuary schools and colleges, but city, county, and state authorities are helpless to prevent deportation once someone enters the system...The only way to provide meaningful sanctuary in Oregon is by changing how we police our communities.

www.commondreams.org | November 13, 2016

Carl Lindskoog

“The Reagan administration [targeted] refugees from Central America. These were people who had escaped the deadly civil wars and U.S.-backed death squads of El Salvador and Guatemala, only to find themselves hunted down for detention and deportation in the United States. Determining that this amounted to an unjust and illegitimate use of federal authority, a group of activists created a modern-day underground railroad to transport and protect the refugees and migrants Reagan’s federal agents were hunting.”

For many Americans, the Fall of Saigon meant the end of a war that had taken the lives of many U.S. soldiers, divided the country and raised new questions about the U.S. role in the world. But the Fall of Saigon also had tremendous repercussions for millions of people in Southeast Asia whose lives had been torn apart. Former U.S. allies were persecuted, and many were forced to flee. U.S. refugee resettlement efforts initially brought some 130,000 Southeast Asians...But those left behind continued to face political persecution, retribution, genocide and extreme poverty.

Sun Sentinel | February 6, 2015

María Cristina García

“Our definition of refugee, drawn from the 1967 UN Protocol, specifies that to qualify as a refugee or asylum seeker one must have suffered persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. But in the 21st century, people are more often displaced from their homes for other reasons as well: foreign occupation, civil disturbance, gang violence and environmental disaster. Some are forced out of their homelands because of misogyny and homophobia. Others are conscripted against their will, trafficked for sex and labor or sold into slavery. Those who flee these circumstances and seek asylum in the United States find a high standard of proof for their claims. Due process is absent from immigration courts.”

NPR | August 14, 2014

María Cristina García

The Immigration Act of 1990 authorized status known as Temporary Protective Status. TPS can be offered to foreign nationals already in the U.S. who are unable to safely return to their home country because of natural disaster, armed conflict or some other extraordinary situation. Its one alternative legal route that 'might be available to the unaccompanied children, according to Garcia.”