Immigration: The Pride of America? (December)

In December 2019, the Rights Writers introduced themselves and their general topic – who are the key actors, what are their goals/incentives, and what are the main debates? (How does the topic relate to human rights specifically?)

US Mexico Border Death Monument
U.S. Mexico Border Deaths Monument © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty

Despite being the foundation of the United States as we know it today, historically, immigration has been an extremely divisive topic. The balance of homeland security and helping those in need is difficult to achieve and each perspective has significant moral claims. The ensuing discussions essentially all stem from the ethical debate of whether we owe more to our compatriots than to foreigners, and if so to what extent.

This blog series will address the moral questions surrounding immigration issues, focusing specifically on asylum-seekers and refugees in the context of the United States. It is important when entering a discussion to clarify the terms that will be used in order to avoid unproductive disagreement that arises from different interpretations of specific words. In this case, I will be sticking to the legal definitions provided by international law. Therefore, a refugee, as determined by the 1951 Convention, is someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. An asylum-seeker is someone who claims refugee status but their claim has not yet been evaluated. The UNHCR refers to this as Refugee Status Determination. Although these definitions have been contested, for the sake of consistency and clarity I will be using them accordingly.

Looking past legal obligations, such as the 1967 Refugee Protocol, many would additionally argue that the United States has a moral duty to uphold and defend the rights of all people– not simply its own citizens. However, it is difficult to effectively argue for an entirely cosmopolitan view where we care equally for all humans since this runs into the problem of familial obligations and other duties people have to groups that they identify with. Capitalism would collapse if we tried to maximize welfare across the globe. Nevertheless, it seems morally wrong to say that we have no responsibilities to anyone outside of our political boundary. Indeed, most can agree that specific human rights must be upheld no matter where someone is from. Just doing the bare minimum of not violating these rights, however, still allows for massive inequality and unfair treatment.

It is easy for the media to place all the blame on specific government organizations and officials, however, instead, understanding the complicated motives for migration around the world and the unique processes of various migration policies both at the national and international levels would reveal much more complexity. Now as much as ever, if not more since the events of September 11th, 2001 and the Syrian conflict, immigration has been hotly disputed. In recent years, political priorities have clearly shifted to greatly disadvantage refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants as evidenced by policies such as the Safe Third Country Rule and the severely diminished refugee arrival cap. Prior to the cut, the United States had a record for resettling more refugees than all other countries combined. The actions of the current presidential administration, in particular, have intensified these debates. There has been outrage over family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, indignation over the Muslim travel ban as it is commonly referred to, and controversy over the proposed elimination of DACA.

The two main groups of migrants who are the targets of hostility in the United States are Muslims and those of Hispanic origin. These attitudes are prevalent despite the all-time high of displacement worldwide. According to the 2018 Global Trends Report by the UNHCR, 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide but less than 1% are ever resettled. In the United States, asylum claims from the frequently labeled “economic migrants” of the northern triangle have increased by over 370% since 2008 while acceptance rates are at a mere 13%. The stark juxtaposition is further appalling when you consider that a study interviewing over 16,000 women from the region seeking asylum found that over 80% had a credible fear of torture or persecution which is the first condition of asylum. Misconceptions and prejudices against Northern Triangle Migrants prevent them from being granted asylum. The acceptance rate will drop even further with President Trump’s Safe Third Country Rule. While this is far from just, it is not unprecedented. Across the world, many affluent nations have attempted to outsource their obligations. While some argue that they are protecting their right to national self-determination, it jeopardizes the lives of already persecuted individuals and places additional strains on less stable nations.

Where the line should be drawn between securing the rights of foreigners and prioritizing nationals is an ongoing debate that reflects our values as a society and has serious implications for human rights.