Commentary: Trump commemorates end of WWI, but ignores its lessons on refugees

President Trump at the American Commemoration Ceremony at Suresnes American Cemetery Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
President Trump at the American Commemoration Ceremony at Suresnes American Cemetery Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)


By Barbara Franz


President Trump spent the weekend in France commemorating the end of World War I. But his policies on refugees show he has not learned from that terrible conflict a century ago.

By forcing asylum seekers to enter the U.S. at official ports of entry only, the U.S. government is currently ignoring a cornerstone of international refugee law, the principle of non-refoulement, which is the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

For the next 90 days, refugees who cross the U.S./Mexico border without papers will not be eligible for asylum unless they wait at an official port of entry. A presidential order signed by President Trump last Friday announced the new policy.

On the same day, the policy was challenged in court by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, among other organizations, alleging Trump’s order is “in direct violation of Congress’s clear command that manner of entry cannot constitute a categorical asylum bar.”

The Immigration and Nationality Act  specifies that people may apply for asylum “whether or not” they enter the U.S. at a port of entry.

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

Reacting to Trump’s order, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) explained that everyone fleeing violence or persecution should get protection “without obstruction.”

According to the UNHCR, many of the people on the move in Central America and Mexico today are fleeing “life-threatening violence or persecution” and require international protection.

This is the Trump administration’s most recent scheme to keep the xenophobic, anti-immigrant fires of white identity politics burning and to limit asylum. For the administration, the American asylum process is spiked with “systematic fraud” and represents “the biggest loophole in the world.” 

Fewer people have been entering the U.S. without documentation in the past decade. However, many who are arriving are no longer migrants, but refugees, fleeing conflict and violence in their home counties.

For example, the people traveling together in the so-called caravan originate mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras. These three countries, sometimes referred to as the Northern Triangle, are some of the most violent on the planet, with some of the world’s highest murder rates.

Arrivals from the Northern Triangle in the U.S. have been passing their credible fear or reasonable fear screenings, the first step in a multi-step screening process that might lead to asylum or another form of protection.

During the adjudication of these cases, the asylum-seekers frequently are incarcerated. Because of under-funding of immigration courts, there is a large backlog of asylum cases, with 690,000 pending deportation cases in March 2018.

In New Jersey, this process takes on average longer than 1,000 days, leaving  incarcerated asylum-seekers and their families in limbo.

Murder, kidnappings, extortion, and gang violence perpetuate the insecurity in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These countries rank in the top 10 in the world for homicide.

Doctors Without Borders has issued a report outlining unprecedented levels of violence in the Northern Triangle. Much of the region’s violence is a legacy of U.S. policies gone awry; it’s driven in large measure by American demand for drugs and its supply of weapons.

American deportation policies sparked and fomented the rise of the region’s violent gangs. Dennis Rodgers, Robert Muggah, and Chris Stevenson show in their report that the 46,000 criminals deported from the U.S. to Central America between 1998 and 2005 prompted the expansion of U.S.-bred gang culture across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

These criminals midwifed such notorious groups as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. El Salvador has the highest population of gang members in the world -– some 65,000 – with a further half million people considered sympathizers or dependents.

Because of gang violence, El Salvador, a country of six million, is the most violent country in the world, with more than 10 homicides a day on average in 2017. It’s clear that the U.S. bears responsibility for its violence-inducing, destabilizing role in the region.

Nevertheless, Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to deny asylum in most instances of gang and domestic violence, and a total of 11,748 Salvadorans have been deported from the U.S. and Mexico since the start of 2018.

The potential cancellation of the rights to residence in the U.S. for the beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program threatens to overwhelm the Northern Triangle. The Salvadoran state does not have the capacity to accommodate the estimated 200,000 Salvadorians who reside in the U.S. and might have to return.

For sure, El Salvador would be welcoming a very different group of people in 2020 than the 46,000 criminals deported there in the 1990s. From a historical perspective, however, their return might be similarly destabilizing for state institutions and infrastructure, potentially leading to a shocking experience for the civil society akin to the U.S. mass deportations that removed and relocated thousands of criminals to El Salvador in the 1990s.

The presidential order from Nov. 9, 2018, is just the latest attack in an ongoing multi-pronged war against immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

One prong is focused on making it as difficult as possible to enter the U.S. via the forced migrant route.

Examples for this strategy are the wall, the infusion of funds to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and deployment of 5,000 troops to our southern border to “protect” our security from approximately 4,000 migrants on the road for months, and still hundreds of miles away when the troops were sent.

Another prong is to make it inhumane and painful to remain in the country. Examples include the family separation policy during the summer of 2018, and the humongous backlog of asylum cases (more than 318,000 affirmative asylum applications were pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as of March 2018).

Another element of attack is the silent upending of national and international-refugee law, through the administration’s illegal refusal to allow thousands of people to apply for asylum.

A number or Trump’s decrees directly contradict the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol to which the United States is a party.

The convention states that asylum seekers rarely are in a position to comply with the requirements for legal entry and that seeking asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules.

Refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing danger, and to protect themselves, they should be able to cross borders. Current policies make it very likely that refugees seeking protection will be turned back and not considered for asylum in the U.S.

Trump’s most recent extravaganza clearly is undermining these principles of international protection, and thus silently pulling the U.S. out of the most important minimal protection treaties for individuals fleeing war, conflict and violence.

Many of these treaties were drawn up by the international community after the colossal carnage of World War II became apparent. Despite the president’s visit to Paris celebrating the end of World War I, the lessons learned from this war and World War II are apparently inconsequential for this administration.

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.


Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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