U.S. Should Not Turn away Asylum Seekers at its Borders

The global refugee crisis, the largest since World War II, demands strong and principled U.S. leadership. But as the Washington Post reported on Monday, and non-governmental organizations detailed in a formal complaint, some U.S. border officers have been turning away “numerous” asylum seekers at the southern border.

When Congress—with strong bipartisan support—passed the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States codified its commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol. Under those treaties, states can’t return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or reject potential refugees at the border. The United States is also a party to the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits governments from sending people to places where they would be in danger of being tortured.

In the wake of World War II, the United States played a leading role in drafting the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Without international treaties, many European states had closed their borders to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, and the United States, along with Cuba, had turned away the S.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying refugees, many of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust. In a letter released on January 18, 2017, 1500 rabbis called on newly elected U.S. officials to keep America’s doors open to refugees, noting that in the past “Severe restrictions kept countless Jewish immigrants in danger, and too many people faced death in Europe after being turned away from these shores.”

At the time the Refugee Convention was drafted, the United States pointed out that: “Whether it was a question of closing the frontier to a refugee who asked admittance, or of turning him back after he had crossed the frontier, or even of expelling him after he had been admitted to residence in the territory, the problem was more or less the same. Whatever the case might be, whether or not the refugees was in a regular position, he must not be turned back to a country where his life or freedom could be threatened.”

Laws are to be followed even during times when states are tempted to break them. In fact, that’s usually when they matter the most. Instead of turning away those seeking protection, the United States should allow them to be assessed through its asylum and protection processes. A spokesperson for DHS’s Customs and Border Protection confirmed that its officers are obligated to refer potential asylum seekers to the asylum division for screening. As Human Rights First urged in a letter to DHS in July 2016, the agency should allocate sufficient staffing to busy ports of entry, stop turning away asylum seekers, and assure compliance with U.S. treaty obligations.

If the United States does not follow the rules, and adhere to its legal commitments, what signal does that send? Eighty percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, and the majority are hosted by ten states: Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad. Why should other countries do their fair share—and often much more—if the United States shirks its responsibilities?

There are many lives on the line. Hondurans, Cubans, and others are at risk of deportation back to persecution if they are turned away when they seek U.S. protection. In the wake of the failure of the United States and European countries to adequately support frontline refugee hosting states through resettlement and aid, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have largely closed their borders to Syria’s refugees, leaving thousands trapped inside the country to face Russian bombs, government persecution, and the brutality of ISIL.

The United States should lead. Strong leadership means following the rules, rules that reflect core American ideals.



  • Eleanor Acer

Published on January 19, 2017


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