Asylum seekers confound immigration officials, says expert

Media Contact

Syl Kacapyr

Of the 10 countries that carry out resettlement programs with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United States accommodates more than twice as many refugees as the other nine countries combined, said Cornell historian Maria Cristina Garcia at a discussion in the Hans Bethe House dean's apartment Sept. 7.

But with more than 14 million refugees worldwide, this is a mere drop in the bucket, she noted. More than half of those refugees have lived in refugee camps longer than 10 years, which prevents them from any chance of earning a livelihood, receiving an education or practicing a profession. The real burden of accommodating refugees is borne by the countries that border areas of conflict -- such as Pakistan, Iran and Tanzania.

"Since the 1990s a third of those who ask for protection from the United States do so as asylum seekers rather than as refugees," said Garcia, the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies, who is working on a book on refugees and asylum seekers since the end of the Cold War.

Refugees petition for protection before coming to the United States, usually with the assistance of the UNHCR or some other nongovernmental organization, but asylum seekers petition upon reaching U.S. airports or other ports of entry, or as a last-ditch effort to prevent deportation in the case of undocumented immigration.

"This has created a backlog of cases," Garcia said, and it can take a couple of years for an asylum seeker to get a successful resolution to his case.

When Congress passed the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, one of its provisions gave Immigration and Naturalization Service officers (now the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE]) at ports of entry the authority to decide who is automatically returned and whose case gets heard in an immigration court -- a decision, said Garcia, that can be subjective.

"The policy of 'expedited removal' has been subject to abuse and has very little oversight," said Garcia. "It's one of the parts of the law that really needs reform."

ICE officers can also determine whether an immigrant should be held at a detention facility or released on her/his own recognizance.

"If she's lucky enough to be released, she has to figure out some means of support," said Garcia. "If she doesn't have friends or family in the U.S., she has to hope that a church group or a nongovernmental organization is made aware of her case so she can find a place to live and a means of support, because she is not automatically entitled to a work permit."

Immigration lawyers and judges are also challenged with what to do with boy soldiers, victims of trafficking, and children who arrive unaccompanied, she said. An estimated 300,000 children have been conscripted against their will to armies around the world.

"In the wake of 9/11, we passed anti-terrorist legislation that prohibits granting asylum to those who offer material support to terrorist organizations, and boy soldiers fall under this jurisdiction," said Garcia.

She notes that the decision of whether to grant protection is never easy: "The cases are messy, ambiguous and often have potentially devastating consequences for people who are deported."

Garcia, whose areas of expertise include refugees, immigrants, exiles and transnationals in the Americas, has a forthcoming chapter, "Central American Migration and the Shaping of Refugee Policy," published this month in a new book, "Migrants and Migration in Modern North America" (Duke University Press), edited by Dirk Hoerder and Nora Faires.

Farhan Nuruzzaman '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

Story Contacts