Trump’s New Rule Asks The Wrong Question

The Trump administration announced yesterday that asylum seekers who have previously been through a third country may no longer apply for asylum in the U.S. The purpose is to help achieve Trump’s goal of stopping the flow of asylum seekers crossing the Southern border by forcing them to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than here. You can read new coverage from National Public Radio here and read the rule itself here.

A coalition of immigrant rights groups, assisted by the ACLU, has sued to block the rule’s implementation. They claim U.S. law explicitly permits people to claim asylum in the U.S. even if they’ve passed through a third country as long as they did not settle there. I hope their lawsuit succeeds. You can read it here.

 That said, this new rule seems different than some of the tactics Trump has used previously that are unconscionable violations of human rights. Taking children from their parents and housing asylum seekers in overcrowded, unbearable conditions in order to deter others from coming is inhumane and should be condemned by all sides. But the basis of this new policy can at least be debated.

Why trump Says They should be forced to apply in Mexico

Legally, asylum is only granted to individuals who have a legitimate fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group in their home country. People who are fleeing poverty or searching for increased economic opportunities are called economic migrants and do not qualify.

In practice, it is very difficult to distinguish economic migrants from those with legally valid asylum claims. A person may very well be fleeing both poverty and persecution at once. A person may be fleeing abject poverty, but political persecution or discrimination may be a root cause of why they are impoverished. All this is difficult to determine in any circumstance, let alone in a short court hearing in which a non-English speaker with little knowledge of U.S. law and limited resources and preparation is asked to make their case!

So Trump figures that if someone is genuinely fleeing persecution, they should stop as soon as they are safely out of their home country and take refuge in Mexico, which is according to Trump competent to protect them. This is stated explicitly in the lengthy justification of this rule published by the government: Many of the aliens who wait to seek asylum until they arrive in the United States transit through not just one country, but multiple countries in which they may seek humanitarian protection. Yet they do not avail themselves of that option despite their claims of fear of persecution or torture in their home country. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to question whether the aliens genuinely fear persecution or torture, or are simply economic migrants seeking to exploit our overburdened immigration system by filing a meritless asylum claim as a way of entering, remaining, and legally obtaining employment in the United States (See the rule, p. 37).

Of course, the migrants may have reasons for preferring the United States over Mexico. But they have only a right to safety, not to choose where that safety will come from.

 And Mexico may well consider itself ill-suited to shelter so many people and would rather they continue on North. The reality is that granting asylum is a major burden and no country wants to have to do it. But Mexico cannot shuffle its responsibilities onto other countries. Having a large, fleeing population on its Southern border is Mexico’s bad luck. The fact that Mexico may be unlucky and resents being stuck with far more asylum seekers than it can handle doesn’t make this the United States’ problem.

The Wrong Question

Our sense of compassion tells us that categorically denying asylum to every one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have made the arduous and dangerous trek from Central America via Mexico and tossing them back to the places they so much fear to return can’t be right. For the United States to wash its hands of the entire problem, and to say Mexico should solve this along with its Southern neighbors and we aren’t going to help at all, seems cruel and heartless. That’s true even if this new rule passes legal muster in the courts.

The solution is to realize that asking whether these people entering the U.S. from Central America via Mexico are bona fide asylum seekers or economic migrants is fundamentally asking the wrong question. While this distinction is crucial to the legal process, it makes little difference to the individual fleeing for safety. What does it matter whether they face starvation, criminal gang violence, or persecution sanctioned by the government? The point is that they are desperately seeking shelter from a horrible situation.

The U.S. shouldn’t be asking how many are economic migrants that we can legally turn away and what small percentage we must grudgingly admit are bona fide asylum seekers that we are legally forced to accept. The proper question is how much can the United States do to help the people who are suffering in these wretched, lawless, and violent Central American countries?


There are two reasons for giving assistance. The first is charity. The United States currently distributes about $49 billion each year in foreign aid. There are many rationales for this. Some is designed to strengthen military alliances, some to further assorted political goals, and so forth. But one important reason for foreign aid is charity. As a relatively wealthy country, the United States helps foreigners in need. When there is a disaster, we send rescue assistance. When there is famine or drought, we send aid. As we are beseeched by people in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for assistance, we should respond. Of course, the United States cannot be expected to provide all the needs of everyone in the world. But just as we as individuals give charity as much as we can afford, the United States government does so also.

As a matter of charity, we should compassionately consider how much aid we can afford to contribute to these places. And we should also consider how many refugees from there we can afford to take in. The question should be less about them and the legal particulars of why they’ve fled, but rather about us: How many refugees can we manage to resettle? We probably can’t take them all, but how much kindness and compassion is our country willing to show?

Self Interest

For those not inclined towards charity, there’s another even more powerful reason why we should. Unless a way is found to make life in these three Northern Triangle countries more appealing, we will continue to be bombarded with refugees.

The reality is that we are all interconnected. There are many far away problems in today’s world that we can’t turn our back on because ultimately they affect us. Consider climate change as an obvious example: Greenhouse gasses that any country puts into the atmosphere alter the climate for all. So too severe economic and political crises such as what’s happening in the Northern Triangle. The flow of refugees from that area is unsustainable. Even if we try to force them all to stay in Mexico at some point that burden will be too much and destabilize that country, causing another exodus towards our borders. There is simply no way a vast population can peacefully take refuge in a foreign country.

 The question we should be asking is what can we do to help improve life in the Northern Triangle Countries. There will not be any simple answers, and it’s not at all certain that throwing money at the problems there would by itself make a difference. But when we look at the vast budget the Trump administration spends on detention centers, border security, and potentially its long sought after wall, money spent in a way that lessens the desire to come to the U.S. in the first place would certainly be a better investment.

And in the meantime we should ask how many asylum seekers we can take in. Let’s stop squabbling about which we are required to take and how many we can legally turn down, and put our efforts into finding ways to resettle as many as possible.

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