Distinguishing Among Different Kinds of Safe Harbor in a Refugee Crisis

This weekend many of my clergy colleagues have given their time, money, and personal comfort to demonstrate against oppression of immigrants in this country without legal authorization. Part of what confuses the public conversation about what to do is that there are various types of what are called “push” situations, meaning there needs to be more than one avenue for response. 

What does not work is to lump everyone who gets here “by any means possible” into a single Emma Lazarus grand category. Such idealization — not even blurry thinking, but irrational emotionalism– overthrows not only our own nation’s immigration laws, but established international norms for shifting populations. The international community itself has overthrown these norms, by allowing what began as one kind of operation to morph into the other without any positive decision to make the change, but discussions always begin with a reclarification of the benchmarks.

The two different categories of welcome are “resettlement country” — where people are free to build homes and pursue citizenship — and “first asylum countries” — where people are kept safe until whatever crisis drove them out gets resolved. Part of the problem facing the United States at this time is that Mexico, the logical country of first asylum for the Honduran refugee children, has set up a system for effectively funneling them north to the US. There’s a long list of reasons why nations dislike providing first asylum, the most important of which can be seen in the Middle East, where Palestinians have been living in so-called refugee camps since 1948. Without distant nations volunteering to resettle refugees out of camps in first asylum nations, the only other recourses are imprisonment or repatriation. Involuntary repatriation is not allowed under international norms and United Nations standards for countries for whom it provides refugee assistance.

Politywonk has no particular theory on how to solve the problem of the Honduran refugee children. However, the depths of my resume reveals a year spent working in a program whose whole purpose was to separate legitimate refugees from economic migrants, with the commitment to find everyone some kind of home in a country which had agreed to resettle a certain number of these refugees. Yes, some of them were economic migrants, and they went to the back of every line.

The American Dream traditionally has had two components: personal safety and personal opportunity. Immigration law doesn’t see it that way. It is my belief that the first step in calming the  current hysteria is to set up such a system for this crisis. We need a first asylum program for legitimate refugees — people with well-founded fear for their lives in the place where they have spent their lives thus far — which treats them differently from economic migrants. And for economic migrants, regular immigration law continues to apply. Making these distinctions would anger the most vocal observers on both sides of the issue by thwarting a lot of family reunification dreams among folks not here with legal authorization. Yet for those with genuine needs for personal protection — including some for whom family reunification would be an outcome — this system will indeed save their lives.

Idealism represents the polar opposite to categorical hatred. Neither of them is a good guild to public policy. And given that lives are really at stake, Politywonk respectfully submits that considering international legal norms can help even our nation get its house back in order.

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