Even without Donald Trump in office, the USA seems to still have walls blocking refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. The previous American President was often the focus of much scrutiny concerning migration, both in terms of his polemic, oftentimes derogatory, framing and implemented a policy on the matter. For instance, the Trump administration was heavily criticized for the use of detention centers with inhumane conditions for adult and child asylum-seekers, a practice that continues under Joe Biden. The US migration and asylum policy at the time was best embodied by the wall between the country’s southern border and Mexico – a (fulfilled) campaign promise which set out to Make America Great Again (MAGA). Interestingly, in an opinion piece published by USA Today, former U.S attorney, Arizona attorney general, governor, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano writes that “President Joe Biden inherited a set of border security and immigration policies that can only be viewed as draconian and ineffective. Now… we are seeing glimmers of an immigration framework that is both sane and humane”. To some degree, this is true, with Biden halting the construction of the border wall. However, has the current American approach towards asylum seekers changed that much? 

Certainly, the current President of the United States Joe Biden has inherited a nation with a complex history of migration and refugee policy, evolving and reflecting the racialized framework for migration governance combined with the predominance of nativism and fears of economic dependence. In this sense, the Trump administration’s migration policy was not a radical break from the American tradition, although showing a steep decline in the number of asylum-seekers welcomed to the country. Put differently, the US is quick to issue visas for white, wealthy Europeans; historically, the state is equally as quick to erect numerous borders, quotas, and walls for nonwhite migrants signaling the economic and political contingency for refugees to enter the US. From this view, Janet Napolitano correctly asks, “Who drives around on a flat tire for 35 years? America does when it comes to immigration” yet overstates the current President’s attempt to change the asylum system framework. 

The American Immigration Council has compiled an overview of refugee migration management occurring in the US. The US Asylum system is interesting, insofar that is the current President and members of Congress who discern the “ceiling for refugee admissions” each year, in essence setting a quota for each origin region of asylum-seekers. This leaves government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enforce policy and handle asylum claims with a demonstrated focus on detention and deportation. Human Rights Watch reports that the CBP under the Biden administration “has expelled pregnant women who were in labor”, while also failing to properly accommodate asylum-seekers during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while campaigning, Biden promised to set the quota at 125,000 refugees upon his appointment – this number was quickly cut down to 62,5000 and then returned to the limit of 15,000 as set by Trump. In this way, the quota setting refugee-system of the US has failed asylum-seekers, with the Biden administration using those seeking refugee status as political rhetoric to dislocate his Presidency from his predecessor while campaigning. However, in response to public outcry the quota will be raised, a warm reminder that voices do matter in the fight for refugee rights.

Another important component of the contemporary American asylum system can be found in ‘border cities’, towns located along the Mexican-American border where asylum-seekers wait for their application outcome. During the Trump presidency, both adult and child asylum-seekers were forcibly returned to Mexico through a bilateral agreement, despite there not being adequate resources to accommodate the ‘returned’ populations or no connection between Mexico and the asylum-seekers. Consequently, the US asylum system relies on border communities situated outside of the American border, where asylum applicants fall outside of any social safety net (at least as far as government arrangements go). There comes a clear recommendation from experts, like Long and Sawyer, who write “[t]he US should immediately cease returning asylum seekers to Mexico and instead ensure them access to humanitarian support, safety, and due process in asylum proceedings” while also assisting in the resolution of root causes of displacement – importantly, the recommendation is two-fold, insofar that the Mexican government ought to take responsibility for the agreement and ensure better conditions, or exercise national sovereignty and refuse to accept persons deported from the US.

The UNHCR is offering support for the Mexican asylum system, attempting to help process “the huge backlog of asylum claims”,1unfortunately in the meantime leaving asylum-seekers in a vulnerable situation. However, asylum-seekers located in Mexico have exercised their agency in supportive and creative ways. Estuardo Cifuentes, an LGBTQ+ Guatemalan man, founded the NGO Rainbow Bridge to offer shelter and support for other LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers. In an interview with Lorena Arroyo, a reporter for EL PAÍS, Cifuentes describes his experience of discrimination based upon his sexuality and how once becoming stuck in a border city due to policy changes in the US, he became motivated to help support other LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers. Conclusively, Cifuentes’ initiative demonstrates the capacity and perseverance for asylum-seekers to create better worlds, even despite governmental shortcomings and neglect resulting in the “state of limbo on the border” in which asylum-seekers currently are forced to exist.

In closing, the optimistic words of Janet Napolitano cannot be overlooked – there is a way towards a better framework for asylum and migration, and hopefully, one which includes asylum-seeker-led initiatives like Rainbow Bridge. However, currently, the Biden administration has not introduced such a framework, instead of relying on hollow words showing dignity, and respect for refugees, rather than real action in the form of policy that improves their material condition. With this in mind, the physical barrier which Donald Trump wished to erect along the Mexican-American border seems quite small in the grand scheme of migration policy, yet symbolic of the American approach. Put differently, the MAGA wall serves as the physical manifestation of the divide created between asylum-seekers and residents. The history of American migration and refugee policy as well as conversations around it must be taken into account, showing how walls are continually constructed both politically and physically between the US and those seeking refuge. In this way, barriers for refugee status in the US are to be found as more than physical, but also social and political – they can be seen in the shape of borders, quotas, and walls, oh my!


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