Refugees and Asylum Seekers

When it opposes admitting most refugees and asylum seekers, the Right uses arguments that are similar to its general anti-immigrant stands. It claims that too many undeserving foreigners flood our country, sapping social services rightfully belonging to U.S. citizens and adding to the ranks of the U.S. poor. Although some anti-immigrant groups do acknowledge the United States' humanitarian obligation to accept some refugees, they harshly criticize what they call the "leniency" of refugee and asylum policies. They say that refugees are adding to our growing, and "troublesome," population of immigrants.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Many on the Right argue that refugee and asylum categories are too "loosely defined":

  • Individuals can petition for asylum by citing any number of vague grievances.
  • Special interest groups (such as, feminist, gay rights and ethnic organizations) use the ambiguity of asylum standards to promote their cause.
  • Many asylum seekers are merely too "Americanized" to accept their countries' cultural practices. For example, the U.S. government is wrongly accepting genital mutilation in North Africa and restrictive childbearing laws in China as grounds for asylum.
  • Decisions like these set legal precedent that will only widen the "floodgates" to more refugees.
  • Refugees should only be admitted on a case-by-case basis, ending asylum granted to whole classes of people.

They also say that U.S. policies allow refugees and others to benefit at the expense of taxpayers:

  • Family reunification policies allow established refugees to bring members of their families to the United States. Because refugees and their families are allowed access to public benefits, they become an economic burden on the U.S. government.
  • The INS should create an admittance policy based on self-sufficiency.
  • The total yearly cap should be decreased to 50,000 or less, or else refugees will bring the poverty of Third World countries to the United States.
  • A self-serving refugee industry of lawyers, government and church bureaucrats, charities and lobbyists are seeking allocation of tax-payer money for their programs.
Example: Don Barnett. (1997). "The Refugee Racket" Special Report Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation.


Contrary to the Right's exaggerations, refugees are not overrunning the United States. The vast majority of the world's refugees are in the developing world. Iran alone hosts almost three times as many refugees as the United States. The U.S. refugee population is actually only 4.6 percent of the total number of refugees worldwide. For every 427 U.S. citizens, there is 1 refugee.1

The U.S. refugee and asylum policies tend to reflect the interests of the U.S. government and are based on various political factors. These include maintaining U.S. control within certain regions, highlighting rights violations within enemy nations, and providing humanitarian assistance in order to meet domestic and international political demands. For example, U.S. refugee policy has often favored refugees from nations the United States considered adversaries. From the beginning of Castro's regime until 1994, the United States had an open-door policy to Cuban refugees. In contrast, the United States maintained strict restrictions on the numbers of refugees accepted from Haiti, in part because it supported the Haitian government.2 In addition, U.S. foreign policy has played a role in the political and economic upheavals that have led to the creation of refugees in many nations, including Haiti, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

Attaining asylum or refugee status is not as simple as the Right claims. Refugees and asylum seekers (refugees have their applications approved before coming to the United States, while asylum seekers make their application after arriving) must prove a "well-founded fear of persecution" on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This last category has been interpreted to include sexual orientation- and gender-based persecutions, such as domestic violence. Applicants may spend many years dealing with complicated bureaucracy, without the benefit of legal representation. The approval rate for asylum applications in 1999 was only about 34 percent.3

In fact, many asylum seekers are never even given a chance to make their application. In the case of Cuban and Haitian migrants, the United States has interdicted boats in international waters and refused to allow them into the United States, effectively denying them a chance to seek asylum. Since 1996, asylum seekers who arrive to the United States are subject to expedited removal and a bar on returning to the country for five years, if they do not make their claim known to an officer. The result has been that 95 percent of immigrants are deported after speaking with low-level immigration officers. Language barriers, psychological trauma, socioeconomic status, country of origin, and gender have all been shown to affect migrants' chance of getting an asylum interview. For example, a Bosnian woman who has experienced a war-crime sexual assault might not feel able to speak about it with the first official she meets. If an asylum seeker is sentenced to expedited removal, there is only a 5 percent chance that he will have another opportunity to prove his case's validity.4

Asylum seekers who do have the opportunity to make their case often face years of detention, as they wait for their status to be determined. Detention of asylum seekers was made mandatory by the 1996 IIRIRA, which was a direct result of the Right's anti-immigrant organizing. Most detained asylum seekers are placed in prisons and jails and experience many of the same injustices as other inmates. These include physical abuse, substandard medical and dental care, and frequent transferals to regions far from family or friends.5 They have few of the civil rights of other prisoners and often experience added difficulty due to language barriers and restricted communication with INS officers.

Work permits, public benefits and other social services provide much-needed assistance to refugees who often arrive penniless, speaking no English, with inapplicable professional degrees or skills, and without any community connections. These supports also help to ensure the protection of migrants' human rights, including safety, food and shelter. When the Right advocates denying these benefits, it seeks to add to the hardship that refugees have already suffered. Just as the United States recognizes its humanitarian obligation to provide aid to overseas victims of poverty and war, the United States also has a responsibility to aid those in the United States who have escaped these circumstances.

End Notes

1. Church World Service, "CWS Immigration & Refugee Program: FAQ," July 2001. (January 10, 2002).

2. Michael J. McBride, "The evolution of US immigration and refugee policy: public opinion, domestic politics and UNHCR," UNHCR Working Paper No. 3, May 1999. http://www.jha/ac/articles/u003.pdf (January 10, 2002).

3. World Refugee Information, "Country Report: United States," 2001. (January 10, 2002).

4. Erick Schmitt, "Immigrant Advocates Cite Problems with New Deportation Powers," New York Times, August 15, 2001.

5. See Human Rights Watch, "Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States," v. 10, no. 1, (September 1998). (January 10, 2002); Amnesty International, "Lost in the Labyrinth: Detention of Asylum Seekers in the USA," 1999. (January 10, 2002).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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