Refugees, Asylees, Parolees, and the Others: Who Decides?

By Donna Gabaccia, Director of the IHRC

Why was it President Bush and not Congress who last week granted about 3500 Liberians living in United States the right to remain in the country for another 18 months? http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/09/13/america/NA-GEN-US-Bush-Liberians.php

For the past two years, Americans have been listening to heated debates about immigration policy in Congress. Most probably think it’s Congress that is “in charge? of immigration policy.

Well….not always. Often enough U.S. immigration policy is driven by international concerns. And that is when the executive branch—today that means mainly the President and the Department of Homeland Security—become important decision-makers. Anyone who explores the Liberian story through recent reports will be impressed with the complex system of categories and rules that Congress and Executive branch have together created for the most desperate of immigrants-- those seeking refuge from persecution in their homelands.

The 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 13) asserts it is the right of every person to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country as he pleases. Alas, there is no corresponding human right to enter any other country. No one is more aware of this paradox of human rights than the person who flees from home.

Refugees are persons living outside the U.S. who fear persecution at home. They can of course apply for visas under this fixed quota. But under current U.S. policy only about 10 percent of visas are made available to refugees. The application can take time. Many flee without a visa.

They become asylees—yet another category of U.S. policy. Asylees are persons who have entered the U.S. as tourists, or even without proper documents, but who have requested refugee status upon arrival. (There are no fixed limits for such applications but the decision-making process can be very slow, requiring years.)

In human rights emergencies—typically war or revolution--speed matters. Congress has also empowered Presidents to respond quickly by creating yet another category—that of the “parolee.? Parolees typically come from countries the U.S. regards as important in some way to its national interest. Parolees admitted to the U.S. between 1988 and 1904 from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were allowed to adjust their status and to obtain green cards as permanent residents.

Not for the Liberians who were in the news last week. They held yet another--and even more tenuous status –that was granted them by Executive decision. In 1991, when civil war broke out in Liberia, George H.W. Bush granted “temporary protected status? to Liberians already living in the U.S. and seeking asylum. Like many of the countries from which parolees have been admitted, Liberia had a long-term relationship with the U.S. (It was originally settled and governed by emancipated slaves from the United States). Unlike those from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, temporary protected status precluded adjustment through acquisition of a green card and permanent residency.

Unfortunately for the Liberians, the Department of Homeland Security recently declared the emergency in Liberia to be over, thus suspending their temporary protected status and ending their right to continue to live in the U.S. Last week, George W. Bush extended their temporary protected status—but temporarily. Persons who have lived for 16 years in the U.S. may still face forced returns. Like many people who have lived so long in the U.S. many Liberians affected by the decisions have citizen children or spouses; they have jobs, homes, churches, and communities. They otherwise differ little, if at all, from immigrants from Liberians who now possess green cards. Some may want to return; many want to stay.

Recent debates over U.S. immigration policy that American citizens are beginning to recognize what many foreigners already know-- that U.S. policy is confusing, impossibly slow and broken, and broken as an expression of concern for human rights.

Still, any promises to “fix? what is broken will need to acknowledge that immigration policy is not a strictly domestic matter to be settled by Congress. So long as the U.S. remains actively involved in global politics, the Presidents of the U.S. will want to use immigration law as an instrument of foreign policy, especially in decisions regarding refugees in parts of the world the U.S. regards as strategically important. And that makes finding a quick or simple solution quite unlikely.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on September 17, 2007 3:13 PM.

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