Asylum and Migration: How Ambiguity Can Be Exploited

By Olga Obolenets

In an era where globalization is inexorably gaining momentum, the topic of political asylum as a part of migration is inevitably controversial. This is especially relevant in regards to countries such as the United States of America, where both economic and social sustainability of the state are highly reliant on the foreign-born labor force. The notion of political asylum was first introduced to the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War and has gained popularity since. It was eventually proclaimed a basic right in 1948, as a part of Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1951 Refugee Convention, in turn, broadened the criteria for political asylum by allowing those who possess “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group” to seek protection as well [1]. In modern times, the ambiguity of the term ‘asylum’ significantly challenges the legitimacy of the refugee status, ultimately resulting in radical and reckless immigration policies.

The Trump administration’s recent decision to deny asylum to migrants who cross the border illegally for the sake of “protect[ing] the United States against threats from abroad” is an example of a superficial and futile attempt to solve the complex issue of human migration [2]. The administration’s justification for this new approach heavily relies on the claim that statistical figures reveal that “most migrants who seek asylum are eventually denied - but not before many of them skip their court hearings and choose to illegally stay in the United States.”[3] According to Trump, this ultimately leads to “the release of illegal aliens into our communities after they’ve been apprehended.”[4] While the policy may appear reasonable in terms of protecting national interests and ensuring security at first sight, it violates fundamental federal and international laws. As Omar Jadwat, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project asserts, “people can apply for asylum whether or not they are at a port of entry, and regardless of their immigration status.”[5]  Hence, the fact that an alien crossed the border illegally should not serve as a barrier against asylum application.  

Nevertheless, since the concept of refugee as a whole, being linked to the endorsement of human rights, lacks “clarity on responsibilities for practical delivery,” countries possess no sense of duty or obligation to recognize asylum as an individual right at a domestic level [6].   This explains why the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security approved of the President’s right to “suspend entry by individuals into the United States if he determines it to be in the national interest.”[7] In their official statement, department spokespeople Katie Waldeman and Steven Stafford proclaimed the American asylum system to be “broken” and “abused”, thereby justifying Trump’s order[8]. While numerous Democrats have tried to persuade Trump’s administration to cooperate with Congress on immigration reforms, Congress’s say on this issue is embarrassingly limited.

According to White House correspondent Michael Shear, changing the asylum laws and thereby “drastically slowing the flow of immigration into the United States” is Trump’s way of attracting more Republican voters [9]. Yet none of his immigration policies, including but not limited to attempts to shut down the Temporary Protected Status and the Deferred Action for Childhood programs and implementing “zero tolerance,” have proved to be successful at slowing the flow of immigration, or at least placing it under strict control [10]. As a result, the long-term effectiveness of the current order is doubtful. It ultimately appears that the controversy around political asylum is rooted deeper than on a country level. Due to the ability of both politicians and aliens to exploit the ambiguity of the notion of asylum, the term needs to be redefined. With continued military conflicts in the Middle East, the rising threat of terrorism around the world, and forceful silencing of political opposition in Eastern Europe and South America, it is highly unlikely that the number of individuals seeking political asylum will decrease any time soon. Therefore, the imperative for the international community to take measures on this matter is now stronger than ever.  

Olga Obolenets is a first-year in the College and is a prospective Law, Letters, & Society major.  


[1]“Asylum and Human Rights.” https://justice.org.uk/asylum-human-rights/ (accessed December 4, 2018) [2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10] Shear, Michael. “Trump Claims New Power to Bar Asylum for Immigrants Who Arrive Illegally.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/08/us/politics/trump-asylum-seekers-executive-order.html (accessed December 4, 2018). [6] Harvey, Colin. “Time for Reform? Refugees, Asylum-seekers, and Protection Under International Human Rights Law, https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article/34/1/43/1579088 (accessed December 4, 2018). [7,8] de Vogue, Ariane, Catherine Shoichet, and Sutton Joe. “Judge blocks Trump Administration from denying asylum claims to immigrants who cross border illegally,” https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/20/politics/judge-asylum-restrictions/index.html (accessed December 4, 2018).