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Americans continue to support ideal of U.S. as sanctuary

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

Are we going to return to our past asylum procedure that allows some endangered people to escape gang violence and intimidation in their home countries, or do we fall in step  with “zero tolerance” as the announced means of preventing more gang members and undesirables from entering our country?

Is America going to continue to be a sanctuary or not?

Once again, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington is illuminating.  Here are the percentages of Americans who think that the United States should offer refuge and protection to people facing danger in their own countries:

• All Americans: 75 percent

• Democrats: 90 percent

• Independents: 75 percent

• Republicans: 54 percent

In short, most Americans want our country to be a refuge for people facing persecution (torture, imprisonment, or death) “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (as stated in the Refugee Act of 1980) when their own governments cannot or will not protect them.

The procedure for gaining asylum has not been simple.  It can involve multiple government agencies.  It can take six months and two interviews or stretch on for two to five years. It is not enough merely to come from a country where there is generalized crime and violence. One must be able to verify past persecution or “well-founded fear” of future danger. 

Because of the huge backlog of over 300,000 applications, a process that once took 60 days can now take several years. To counter such delays, a “last in, first out” policy has been introduced to allow the newest applicants to go to the head of the line. The process does finally, however, give people who leap all the hurdles their day in an immigration court.

There has been a sharp rise in the number seeking asylum in recent years. New applications numbered 141,695 in 2017, in contrast to 43,312 in 2012. Between 2013 and 2015, the seekers numbered more than in the previous 15 years combined.

There was a 25-percent increase from 2016 to 2017. Case completions in 2016 numbered 92,071, an all-time high, and 20,455 were granted asylum. In 2017, 60,566 were found to have a “credible fear” of the dangers inscribed in law.

In 2016, more than 25 percent came from the Northern Triangle of Latin America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — the first two being among the top five most violent countries in the world). This trend continues, and a major portion of these seekers are trying to save their children from gang violence and intimidation.

In the face of this burgeoning wave of asylum seekers, the Trump administration invoked the “zero tolerance” policy that led to charging asylum seekers crossing the border with criminal violations, separating thousands and thousands of children from their families (before President Trump canceled the practice by executive order), and denying due process in immigration courts to the asylum seekers.

Attorney General Sessions has called 80 percent of the seekers “without merit.” He labeled the asylum-seeking process “currently subject to rampant abuse and fraud,” although this claim has lacked “strong evidence” according to critics, including a former immigration court judge.  President Trump has alleged that MS-13 and other gangs have been taking advantage of this process to infiltrate the country and invoked the draconian measures in the name of security.  Again strong evidence is lacking.

The issue before our country then is whether we will stick to the belief of a decided majority that we should be a sanctuary for those who qualify for it or go with “zero tolerance” in contravention of asylum law and the will of the people.

Still another move that seems prompted by “immigration alarmism” is the current administration’s seeming determination to dismantle the refugee resettlement program. It is estimated that there are 65.3 million displaced people in the world, including refugees, asylum seekers, and the internally displaced. An estimated 28.5 million are refugees. 

In the current fiscal year, our stated refugee quota was the drastic low of 45,000. We have resettled less than 20,000 as the fiscal year draws to a close. Now, the administration is proposing a new low of 25,000 for fiscal year 2019. 

This apparent dismantling in the face of an ever-worsening global crisis is drawing urgent appeals from several religious communities and social justice organizations, as well as some legislators. They are urging that we fulfill the prior commitment to resettle 45,000 this year and commit to at least 75,000 in 2019. 

When the media inform us about the plight and fate of millions of displaced people, we should understand the shouts of alarm. Tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance. What the U.S. does has an effect on the willingness of other potential host nations. What is more, regional stability and global security are profoundly affected by the plight of refugees, thereby affecting our own wellbeing.

If we are among that large percentage of Americans who still want our country to be a sanctuary, we should be contacting our elected representatives to support this year’s Refugee Resettlement Act, which embodies the commitments just described.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.