America Can Handle It

How many crises must the U.S. deal with at once?  As a nation, we have been forced to simultaneously protect our citizens from disease,  economic degradation, restrictions on their individual rights, and the largest societal upheaval in a generation. On top of all of that, can we really be expected to worry about immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees?

Over the last several years unprecedented numbers of people have fled violence and oppression in Central and South America desperately seeking safe haven for themselves and their families. We have ignored this crisis, to our shame. Our country is too wealthy, too accomplished, and too imaginative to declare defeat on the issue of asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border.

The last few years has seen our treatment of asylum seekers go from bad to worse. In 2017, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) changed the practice of processing migrants with a fair examination of their case to compelling border officers to view stated threats against migrants as not credible.

In March of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned a policy that allowed asylum seekers to testify on their own behalf in front of a judge before they could be deported. Now asylum seekers are often deported without being able to explain themselves to a judge. Denying people their day in court does not ring true for “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

In July of 2019, USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli reduced the minimum waiting time granted to asylum seekers before they are expected to prove their case to USCIS officers, down to less than 24 hours. Asylum seekers often had up to 10 days between arriving to the U.S. and their initial interview, which gave them the time to contact interpreters and lawyers, complete their paperwork, and simply rest after walking thousands of miles with their children. Reducing preparation time is a harassment tactic designed to impair their ability to plead effective cases.

This is the tip of the iceberg concerning ways the Trump administration has attempted to deny the possibility of entry to every asylum seeker, refugee, and migrant approaching the United States.  The administration has also perpetrated family separation, unconstitutional asylum “bans,” inhumane holding conditions at CBP and ICE facilities, and new application fees.  There has also been a growing number of cases of CBP agents sexually assaulting their detainees as part of “security searches.”

Finally, on March 20th the CDC issued an order banning entry to anyone crossing the Mexican border at official ports of entry if their crossing would require them to receive anything more than a cursory identification inspection. This effectively closes the door to all asylum seekers.

This final measure is predicated on a bad faith argument: that it is for our safety against the pandemic.  It is not. Rather, it is very clearly a pretext for an eventual permanent closing of our borders. If we are safe enough to open restaurants back up, why are we not safe enough to process people at the border?  We cannot have this both ways.

The same social distancing measures that allow us to return to the public should allow Border Patrol agents to return to processing people at the border for legal migration or assessment of asylum into the United States.

It’s worth remembering Ellis Island was meant to provide a way for foreigners to enter the United States while ensuring the public health safety for all Americans. Ellis Island continued to process immigrants during times of global disease, and we have that same ability today. The combined medical and criminal investigations at Ellis Island rejected between 1% and 3% of the immigrants applying for entry. That wave of immigration is part of what made America the great country it is today. The current CDC order is preventing nearly 100% of similar migrants seeking safer lives.

In just the last six weeks, there have been more than 21,000 people who have come to beg our help because they know they are in terrible danger.  I hope the U.S. will prove brave enough to end the cowardly CDC order which has effectively halted asylum as we know it.  I hope the U.S. will be smart enough to listen to our public health experts instead of talk radio hosts.

I hope that America will decide it can deal with all of our crises, because we absolutely can.

Colin Campbell is the media director for a defense contractor in San Diego but has previously worked in refugee resettlement.  He served in the United States Marine Corps from 2010 to 2015, including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2013-2014, and is now a leader with Veterans for American Ideals, an organization of veterans that advocates for human rights.  He wishes that everyone would be excellent to each other, and party on.

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Published on June 23, 2020

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