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US Senate Bill Aims to Kill Access to Asylum for Central Americans

Proposed Secure and Protect Act Attempts to Block Asylum Claims

A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. © 2018 Getty Images

If you follow the twisted logic of Senator Lindsey Graham’s Secure and Protect Act to its ultimate conclusion, the US would all but shut its doors to Central American refugees – full stop. A vote on the bill in the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary is scheduled for August 1. 

First, Sen. Graham’s bill would make ineligible for asylum in the United States anyone who came from “a country in Central America that has a refugee application and processing center or a country contiguous to such a country (other than Mexico).” Then, the bill mandates the establishment of a refugee application and processing center in Mexico and three other locations in Central America.

The idea is that no one from Central America should be allowed to seek asylum in the United States who could have applied for refugee admission from outside the United States. But the procedures – and especially the legal foundation – of asylum and refugee resettlement are completely different. Seeking asylum is a human right that requires due process to ensure that no one is sent back to be persecuted, a violation of domestic and international law. By contrast, refugee resettlement is entirely discretionary. The United States sets an annual limit on how many of the millions of refugees in the world it wishes to admit, and then determines which overseas applicants are “of special humanitarian concern” to the United States, often taking into consideration political factors that are not strictly based on choosing the most vulnerable. Refugee resettlement is an important supplement to asylum, but it is not a substitute.

Under Graham’s system, how many Central Americans would actually be protected? Through the first three-quarters of this fiscal year, the United States has chosen to admit 306 Central American refugees. The Trump administration has already cut global refugee admissions by 65 percent (from a ceiling of 85,000 in the last year of the Obama presidency to 30,000 this year). Some officials in the administration have reportedly proposed cutting the refugee admissions ceiling to zero in the coming year. So, if those officials have their way, by the time the Graham bill would become law, no one will be admitted as a refugee from outside the United States anyway. No asylum for Central Americans, zero resettlement for any refugees. Problem solved.

But sleight of hand will not address the human rights and humanitarian crisis at the US southern border. Real solutions that are sustainable and humane require thoughtful goal setting, hard work, and cost. They involve addressing the root causes of conflict and abuse that displace people, developing safe and orderly pathways to seek protection, and establishing fair and efficient procedures for examining asylum claims. The Secure and Protect Act does none of these things, and the US Senate should reject it.

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