Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal


Bill Ong Hing


In the 1980s, tens of thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States seeking refuge from civil unrest that ravaged their countries. In a largely geopolitical response, the Reagan administration labeled those fleeing Guatemala and El Salvador as “economic migrants,” detained them, and largely denied their asylum claims. The illegal discrimination against these refugees was exposed in a series of lawsuits and through congressional investigations. This led to the reconsideration of thousands of cases, the enlistment of a corps of asylum officers, and an agreement on the conditions under which migrant children could be detained.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the 1980s have been forgotten, or intentionally neglected. Beginning in 2014, once again large numbers of Central American asylum seekers—including women and children—are being detained. Asylum denial rates for migrants fleeing extreme violence are high. The mixed refugee flow continues to be mischaracterized as an illegal immigration problem. Many of the tactics used in the 1980s are the same today, including hampering the ability to obtain counsel. President Trump has taken the cruelty to the next level, by invoking claims of national security in attempting to shut down asylum by forcing applicants to remain in Mexico or apply for asylum in a third country. We should remember the lessons of the past. Spending billions on harsh border enforcement that preys on human beings seeking refuge is wrongheaded. We should be implementing policies and procedures that are cognizant of the reasons migrants are fleeing today, while working on sensible, regional solutions.

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