Refugee Law After Reagan


Immigration 101 tracks my course in immigration law at Hofstra Law School. It is designed to give an in-depth look at how our immigration laws were developed and how they work. It is not offered as legal advice.

In the last installment of Immigration 101 I described the perversion of the political asylum practice by the Reagan administration. A law that was intended to bring the United States into line with international protections for people fleeing persecution was instead used as a blunt tool of Cold War policy. Refugees from our enemies were welcomed, refugees fleeing deadly “friends” of the United States were arrested and deported. This policy was challenged by religious congregations involved in the Sanctuary Movement, by human rights lawyers through the courts, and by Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Haitian refugees themselves who spoke out at great personal cost about the injustices they suffered.

By 1990, Congress and the Courts had had enough of the outlaw practices of the INS. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the Sanctuary Movement exposed the dark influence of foreign policy considerations in the daily adjudication of asylum claims. Pressure was put on President George H. W. Bush to revamp the asylum system. And, to his credit, his administration responded with a comprehensive realignment of refugee policy. The new Bush system took the corrosive influence of foreign policy out of the refugee determination process. No longer would asylum determination be based primarily on international political expediency.

Just as importantly, a whole new corps of people was hired to decide asylum cases. In the past, low level INS officials with no training in refugee protections or international law decided asylum cases. Under the new system, the majority of asylum officers would either be lawyers or have advanced degrees in various areas of international studies. They would receive extensive training in asylum law and they would undergo refresher courses regularly, all previously unheard of.

These, and many other changes, helped bring the asylum system into line with practices in other democracies. They are a lasting legacy of the fight begun by the Sanctuary Movement against the greatest of odds. And they serve as a living tribute to those deeply religious men and women who risked their own freedom to help save the lives of refugees during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the next installment of Immigration 101, I’ll look at current asylum practices.

Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.

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