A model for activists to stop the Trump administration from making it nearly impossible for people fleeing violence in Central America to gain asylum in the United States already exists from the movement that forced President Ronald Reagan to halt his attempt to take similar actions, Carly Goodman wrote in The Washington Post on Monday.
Goodman, a historian of immigration and American foreign relations who is also communications analyst at the American Friends Service Committee, emphasized that Reagan, like President Donald Trump, systematically denied asylum to people from El Salvador and Guatemala by refusing to consider those fleeing violence and arriving at the border as refugees.
To do so, Reagan disregarded the Refugee Act of 1980, which stressed the obligation of the U.S. to welcome refugees, bringing the country in line with international standards.
Prior to 1980, the U.S. had frequently been a haven for people fleeing communist regimes, as its refugee policy served Cold War foreign policy aims to show it was more humane than repressive regimes.
Goodman explained that the Refugee Act adopted a less ideological meaning of refugee, which was now defined as someone with a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion and provided a statutory right to asylum that meant that people arriving at the border or already in the U.S. now had a right to claim asylum.
Reagan tried to circumvent this by classifying those from El Salvador as "economic migrants," because economic suffering, unlike political persecution, was not considered a valid reason for seeking asylum under the law.
This dovetailed, according to Goodman, with a change in attitude by the public, which had previously willingly accepted the resettlement of white, European refugees fleeing communism but now were less willing to do so for those from Central America
Similar to today, the Regan administration intimidated those arriving at the border seeking asylum by coercing them to drop their claims and threatening to take away their children, while overwhelmingly denying their asylum claims.
Goodman wrote in the Post, however, that public resistance to Reagan's policies forced the creation of Temporary Protected Status for those who could not get a fair asylum hearing but who feared returning home to civil war and violence.
Activists in the 1980, she said, also helped make U.S. asylum laws more robust, humane and fair.
One of the methods used was by creating a nationwide movement to place refugees into church sanctuaries to protect them from deportation
Today, Goodman emphasized, these hard-fought gains are under attack, and current activists are challenging the Trump administration on this issue.
"Ensuring that the United States builds a fair and generous asylum system is critical," Goodman wrote.
"But we must also reject policies that criminalize migration more broadly, militarize our borders, fund the abuse of immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection and treat both undocumented people and legal asylum seekers inhumanely."
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