24 July 2019

Trump’s asylum policy shows his weak grasp of American history

By Skakel McCooey

While President Trump’s penchant for pandering to white nationalists and willingness to weaponise immigration are both priced in by now, he went one further last week. Not only did he tell four US congresswomen of colour to “go back to your country” (three of the four were born in America), he also introduced a new clampdown on asylum-seekers wishing to enter the country.

His latest move — which as usual garnered praise from his supporters and vitriol from the left — went into effect on July 16. It requires refugees wishing to enter the US to seek asylum in at least one country they pass through on their way north. Asylum seekers from Honduras or El Salvador would need to apply for — and be denied — asylum in either Guatemala or Mexico, for example, before applying to the United States.

This policy, which was signed without congressional approval, would represent a de facto ban on asylum seekers entering the country. The only exceptions to the rule are for victims of trafficking, refugees who travel to America by sea, and those travelling through countries that have not signed the UN Refugee Convention. (Every country in Central America has).

It’s a deeply un-American plan, which ignores our history as a safe haven for those escaping persecution and violence — the Puritans fleeing religious discrimination, the Irish escaping the Potato Famine, or Soviet citizens fleeing communist tyranny.

Trump himself is the grandson of a man who travelled to the US after being banned from his home country. While not an asylum-seeker, Friedrich Trump came to America after he was banished from Germany for illegally shirking military service.

Trump’s main oversight — intentional or not — is to conflate asylum seekers with regular immigrants. Asylum seekers come to the US looking for escape from discrimination and violence, while ordinary immigrants come for a multitude of other reasons. The former are in desperate need of aid, the latter less so.

Now, there are certainly issues on the US-Mexico border. Nine-hundred thousand immigration cases are currently waiting to be heard.  And, in 2018, 161,000 filed for asylum in the United States. Roughly a third of asylum seekers pass an initial screening.

These are large amounts of people and differentiating between those who have legitimate claims and those hoping to game the system is difficult. But “there are too many immigrants to deal with” is not a good enough justification for slamming the door in the face of those who are legitimately escaping gang and drug-related violence in Central America.

America is not alone in being a destination of choice for refugees – and nor is Trump’s harsh response unique. Indeed, his administration is borrowing from the playbook of European leaders trying to limit asylum seekers from countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Some EU member states — especially those, like Italy, who are heavily affected by the Syrian refugee crisis — pay countries through which asylum-seekers often pass, like Libya, to stop people entering Europe. While the effectiveness of these schemes is debated, the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute says that unless countries use authoritarian tactics to detain refugees, flows generally continue.

Unlike the case with Italy and Libya, however, Trump announced the policy despite the Mexican and Guatemalan governments refusing to comply with the plan. Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard has said that his country “doesn’t agree with measures that limit access to asylum and refuge”.

Either way, the Democrats have often proven inept at dealing with Trump’s rhetoric. The default response of calling him a racist simply entrenches the dividing lines he is deliberately trying to enforce, playing into his hand.

Perhaps a more effective attack would be to contrast Trump with another hero of the conservative movement.

“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

That was Ronald Reagan back in 1981. Trump would do well to heed his words.

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Skakel McCooey is a Editorial Intern at CapX.