Ronald Reagan and the subversion of refugee law


Immigration 101 tracks my course on immigration law and policy at Hofstra University School of Law.

In the last installment of Immigration 101, I described the development of modern refugee law from the Geneva Convention through the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which guaranteed fair treatment for all refugees. But 1980 was not just the year the Refugee Act was passed. It was also the year that El Salvador descended into a torrid civil war and America elected Ronald Reagan president. These two developments would test the very integrity of the refugee and asylum system.

1980 began with the United States in a crisis. The Iranian Revolution had already displaced an American-backed monarch and replaced him with a decidedly anti-American Islamic Republic. The ensuing hostage crisis, as well as other problems the United States encountered on the world stage, led many people to believe that America’s best days might soon be behind it. Ronald Reagan announced that if he were elected president in the November elections, he would end the feckless policies of Jimmy Carter and it would once again be morning in America.

One of the humiliations of the Carter administration, according to Reagan, was the Sandinista takeover in tiny Nicaragua and the developing guerrilla conflicts elsewhere in Central America. Reagan vowed to draw a line in the sand against leftist revolts in the Western Hemisphere, starting with support for the murderous military-dominated regime in El Salvador.

During the Reagan years, El Salvador’s death squad government would receive more aid money from the U.S. than all but three other countries in the world! As Reagan poured money in to support the massacres of the Salvadoran army, civilians poured out of Salvador and into the United States. They fled from our figurative back yard into our actual back yards. Ultimately, more than 70,000 civilians were murdered in the conflict in El Salvador and nearly one million sought refuge in the U.S.

The refugee flow from El Salvador presented the Reagan administration with a problem. As thousands of Salvadorans applied for protection from persecution by the Salvadoran government, the Reagan foreign policy establishment claimed that El Salvador, by 1981, was transitioning to democracy. The administration feared that giving refuge to Salvadorans would involve an admission on the part of the United States that the Salvadoran government engaged in the persecution of its own citizens. It was one thing for the Justice Department’s immigration courts to find that refugees from the Soviet Union were fleeing tyranny, it was quite another thing to make the same conclusion about an American ally.

And so, the Reagan Justice Department established a pattern of denying virtually all applications for asylum from Salvadorans.

And Salvadoran refugees were not the only ones who suffered. Haitians fleeing their country’s dictatorship were intercepted at sea to prevent them from even being able to apply for asylum. Guatemalans, caught in what the U.N. Truth Commission described as a genocide, were simply arrested when they came to the United States and deported back to their executioners.

The situation was so horrendous that Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, and Jewish congregations began opening up their houses of worship to these refugees. They openly declared they would defy the Reagan administration to provide protection for those facing torture and death in their homelands. This Sanctuary Movement challenged the policies of the most powerful government in the world, and in the end it won.

In the next installment of Immigration 101, I’ll look at the current system of asylum and refugee law that the Sanctuary Movement helped to create.

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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.