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Image courtesy of Lucila Breton
Image courtesy of Lucila Breton

Is the United States in an asylum crisis?

Por Lucila Breton
July 2024
With the recent increase in migration at the southern border, the United States may be witnessing the most significant challenge to migrant rights, including asylum rights, and to worker protection in decades. A symposium at Bard College, organized by the Human Rights Project, shed light on the acute and systemic challenges of our current immigration system and highlighted the role of local and national organizations working to protect the rights of all immigrants in these difficult times. Are we in an asylum crisis? This was one of the topics of discussion.
"It is true that the numbers from research are dramatic," said Shannon Lederer, Director of Immigration Policy for the AFL-CIO, "In 2023, there were 1.1 million new immigrants in the economy." But Lederer explained that the increase in numbers has been highly beneficial for Americans: "That is why we are not in a recession. This is an example of how immigration has kept us going."

A determined worker and Bard student shared with the panel and the audience how challenging daily life in the United States can be as an undocumented immigrant. "Coming to Bard as a student at forty has been a struggle; accessing higher education is nearly impossible as an undocumented person. Taking care of oneself, one's family, and providing support is very expensive." He added that those working in nonprofit organizations have access to other resources, not from his own community. "My experience sometimes isn't enough," he laments, as he doesn't have a college degree or a law degree and doesn't speak English perfectly. "We are trying to create our small nonprofit organization, but it is practically impossible. There are too many forms to apply for scholarships, you would literally have to be rich and spend an entire month of your salary to complete an application."

Previous governments and their effects
The Dean of the New School for Social Research and former Deputy High Commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Alex Aleinikoff, explained how previous governments have addressed immigration issues and how this has impacted the current situation. "We can trace the origin back to hundreds of human beings who arrived in 1980, during the Carter administration. Then the flow that came from Haiti, and later the adoption of the Refugee Act." During the 1990s, the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico crossing the southwest border reached a dramatic peak. "There were also people coming from Central America seeking asylum; and procedures were established such that people from a country with a right-wing government were not provided asylum, but those from a country with a left-wing government had an easier passage into the United States. The functioning of the asylum process was a kind of discrimination." For Aleinikoff, the numbers at that time were large but not uncontrollable.

However, during the Obama and Trump administrations, the numbers increased significantly at the southwest border. Mexican immigrants came in search of work, while people from Central America arrived with children and whole families, facing a long-term commitment to the army. And he emphasized: "The numbers seen in recent years under the Biden administration, in my opinion, looking back decades, are incomparable. And the causes of migration are also new."

According to Aleinikoff, there is now also a flow of immigrants coming from across the Western Hemisphere; from Venezuela, Ecuador; and other more distant places such as China, Africa, and other Asian countries. "People know that if they arrive in the United States and apply for asylum, they will be in the country for a few years," he stressed. The central problem is not qualifying. Many people, perhaps the majority, have a legitimate fear of returning home. But several migrants are fleeing a declining economy or gang violence, and they do not necessarily qualify for the refugee definition. And the system does not allow different cases to be processed quickly enough.

The moderator, Peter Rosemblum, Professor of International Law and Human Rights asked if he believes the country is at risk of losing its national commitment to asylum and refugee protection, Aleinikoff was unequivocal in his response: "As long as there is a democratic president, asylum will not be lost. But if Donald Trump is elected, we saw what he did, we saw that he was capable of ending asylum at the southwest border, and he will try to do it again. So, this is really a question for American citizens."

Numbers are not the problem
Shannon Lederer, Director of Immigration Policy at the AFL-CIO, spoke about immigration as a business that benefits the U.S. economy. "Numbers are not the problem. We need the numbers if we want economic growth. But what is really important to consider is how immigrants are arriving and under what conditions."

According to an article from One Percent for America, a national nonprofit community funding organization supporting immigrants on the path to citizenship: "Immigrants are fundamental drivers of economic growth and innovation in the United States." Lederer explained that the American population of working age in the cornfields is decreasing, while the immigrant population of working age is growing. Thus, there is evidence that Americans increasingly depend on immigration as an engine to keep the country running. "If we think about more precarious immigrant flows, they have varied greatly, with highs and lows, throughout this century. But in the last 4 years, they have risen to the point that, in 2023, the peak was 2.3 million. In a huge population in precarious conditions," the union leader asserted.

Lederer wants all workers to be protected. Action must be taken to achieve this. "When there is active enforcement in workplaces, employment agencies can request protections for ALL workers. This is a context in which, through movement and collective action, workers can create conditions to be eligible for protection," she affirmed. For her, this step is extremely important because she knows how many people have always fallen and will continue to fall through the cracks of the system.

It's time to act
With the numbers on the table and recognizing the economic need of the United States to welcome immigrants with open arms, Leni Benson, Professor at NYLS, Founder of Safe Passage, Immigrant ARC, invited American citizens to get involved and be part of the solution.

Benson said that sometimes we do not see how educated immigrants, working immigrants, and less qualified poor immigrants are underpinning our way of life. And the problem is that 60% of all workers in the fields do not have labor rights, they are not protected.

Benson proposed a reflection for American citizens and invited us to ask ourselves: How did we feel about Ukrainians coming to the United States with humanitarian visas? Did we welcome them openly? Did we want to support them? How did we feel about the 85,000 Afghans who were quickly evacuated and another 100,000 who were eventually admitted to the country?
States like Texas, Louisiana, and others decided to sue the Biden administration over these humanitarian visa programs, but not for Ukrainians, Benson recounted. "People don't have a problem with them. But do they have a problem helping Venezuelans? What's going on in our heads? Why is one immigrant good and another bad? We haven't talked about race enough. And on our part, there is a lot of fear of immigrants, labor disruption, competition, and migration flows that are out of control."

Benson explained that there are not enough immigration lawyers to cover and help the number of people arriving in the United States. Citizens of this country should get involved, educate themselves, and see what they can do. The professor placed hope in all of us contributing our part: "Sometimes we can't solve the problem completely, but we can help the person in front of us. Get involved in politics. It's up to us to be active, recruit friends, neighbors, family members, and educate our brothers, sisters, and our people in the states where the vote will really matter this fall."

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