Notwithstanding the backtracking last Friday, President Joe Biden has pledged to revive the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) that Donald Trump tried to kill off. Once the White House takes up the issue again, having acceded to pressure from refugee advocates and leading members of Congress, the president should address not only how many refugees to welcome, but also which refugees are included.
It may surprise most Americans that almost no Guatemalans, Hondurans, or Salvadorans have ever been welcomed to the United States through USRAP. Why do worthy asylum seekers from those countries have to risk their lives to get here, while those admitted through USRAP do not? The answer lies in Cold War politics. A different answer is needed today.
The Risky Path to Political Asylum
When Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, the law created two paths to refugee status. Central American refugees have been forced into the path of seeking “political asylum.” Under U.S. and international law, political asylum procedures should allow anyone who arrives at a port of entry or who is already in the United States, in any status whatsoever, to apply for recognition as a refugee. The applicant must demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Successful applicants must persuade an asylum officer, an immigration judge, or (on appeal) a federal Court of Appeals that they fulfill the requirement – and then they can proceed, a year after approval, to apply for lawful permanent residence.
But to access that opportunity, they first have to get to the United States. That often means they have to flee danger; cross dangerous deserts, mountains, or oceans; pay smugglers; and risk being robbed, kidnapped, or raped. These conditions have only gotten worse in recent years. There are no set numerical limits on the number of asylum seekers who may be approved as refugees each year, but policymakers are sensitive to public perceptions and often act as if there were fixed limits.
In addition to the dangers en route, asylum seekers have faced changes in laws and regulations and in agreements with other governments, all designed to keep them from ever reaching U.S. territory. The Trump administration’s cruel policies — of the separation of families, the returns to Mexico under the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s blanket exclusion order (under Title 42) — were only the latest obstacles. None of those supposed deterrents have stopped frightened but determined people from seeking refuge in the United States.
The Path via Refugee Admissions
The other path Congress created in 1980 became known as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, or USRAP. Under the law, the president makes an annual discretionary determination as to how many refugees will be admitted to the United States and from which countries or regions. Those refugees are vetted and selected abroad, usually while they are in refugee camps. They are then brought to the United States legally, to be welcomed by social services agencies funded by the federal government to help them adjust to their new homes. It’s not a “bed of roses,” as the refugees themselves and anyone who has worked with them would agree. But at least on the last stage of their journey to safety in the United States, they don’t have to risk their lives.
The numbers of refugees admitted under USRAP have varied from president to president, none dropping them lower than Trump. Regrettably, Biden last week backtracked on his pledge to return the numbers to the pre-Trump totals. However, advocates are hopeful he will be persuaded otherwise.
But even then, the question will remain as to which countries of origin will be included. When the president chooses the lucky thousands from among the millions of refugees worldwide, a number of factors come into play. The president and his advisors will consider humanitarian issues – which would-be refugees are in the most unstable situation or have faced the worst threats or actual harm. Officials also deliberate about foreign policy considerations, including which governments the United States wants to label as repressive. Both factors are important when the president selects the countries of origin and the numbers of applicants to be admitted.
Over the past 40 years, the designation of refugees’ countries of origin have hewn closely to U.S. foreign policy goals. In general, since 1980, refugees admitted from Africa and the Middle East were drawn from areas of violent conflict, including thousands from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libera, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. Thousands were also welcomed from Myanmar, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia.
However, admissions from Latin America appear to have followed a “Cold War” paradigm through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. During the 1980s, admissions from Latin America totaled 15,806, and during the 1990s, 49,941, almost all of whom were from Cuba. From 2000 to 2016, the annual admissions from Cuba ranged from 1,500 to 6,000.
In 2004, the United States began admitting Colombians fleeing armed conflict in their country, but only in numbers under 500 a year. Surprisingly, the Trump administration started admitting refugees from the so-called Northern Triangle countries in 2017: 2,525 from El Salvador, 457 from Guatemala, and 308 from Honduras in four years. However, these meager numbers pale in comparison to the thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans subjected during the same period to the illegal and cruel U.S. policies of family separation, detention, rejection, exclusion, and interdiction.
An End to USRAP’s Cold War Paradigm?
So why have Central Americans fleeing repression, threats, and danger in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador almost never been included in USRAP? Back in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was the first president to select refugees from abroad. Reagan’s Cold War-driven support of the military dictatorships in Central America motivated the refusal to include Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the program. That policy also generated a 97 percent denial rate of applications for asylum from those countries, despite ongoing civil wars and massive human rights violations by the governments of both countries. The administration of George H.W. Bush ultimately settled a class-action lawsuit by Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees denied asylum under Reagan, allowing several hundred thousand to remain in the United States.
In the decades since, none of the impacted countries have fully recovered from the damage caused by these U.S.-funded wars and our failure to help the countries rebuild. As discussed above, only a relative handful of those fleeing ongoing danger in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have ever been included in the annual USRAP quotas. Obama’s Central American Migrant program welcomed Central American children whose parents were already legal residents of the United States – an important, but tiny constituency. The Biden administration has promised to make up for the lack of meaningful humanitarian treatment of Central Americans under prior administrations. Ronald Reagan is no longer president and the Cold War ended decades ago, so why is the exclusion of Central Americans from this safe, legal path to the United States still in place?
The Biden administration indicated in February that an increase is needed in the Latin America quota in the FY 2021 USRAP numbers, and that it realizes that Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans face threats and danger at home. However, the administration has made no concrete commitments about numbers that might be included. So the rhetoric was a good signal, but urgently needs follow-up.
Allowing some Central Americans to enter under USRAP is a long-overdue and positive step, but it should be seen as complementary to the restoration of a meaningful opportunity to apply for asylum at the U.S. border or in the interior. Professor David Scott FitzGerald noted in his recent book, “Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers,” that only 1 percent of global refugees are brought legally to safe destination countries, while more than 90 percent of asylum seekers reach the borders of such countries without prior permission. The right to apply for asylum on arrival is a core guarantee of international and U.S. law and must be preserved.
The U.S. bears a great deal of responsibility for the conditions of poverty, violence, and failures of the rule of law that drive asylum seekers north from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as history will attest. That responsibility seems to have slipped from memory in our country. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Marcela Valdes argued that America owes something to immigrants from countries destabilized by U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration must urgently reform the procedures at the U.S.-Mexico border to comply with our obligations under U.S. and international law. That and including several thousand Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans in the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program for the current fiscal year and 25,000 in the 125,000 President Biden promised for FY 2022 would be good first steps towards reparations for the decades of harm the United States has caused.