Karen Musalo and Eunice Lee on a Rational Response to Refugees in the Region

Published on: Author: Richard Boswell

In their article, Seeking a Rational Approach to a Regional Refugee Crisis: Lessons from the Summer 2014 “Surge” of Central American Women and Children at the US-Mexico Border, Professor Karen Musalo and Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) co-Legal Director Eunice Lee examine refugee policy and regional conditions in the Obama era. Although rhetoric and policies against refugees have dramatically escalated under Trump, Musalo and Lee’s article provides a clear-sighted reminder that the last Administration also curtailed meaningful access to asylum for Central American women and children in a number of ways. This approach derived at least in part from a misguided focus on “pull” factors that supposedly draw migrants here, e.g., jobs and a perception of lax immigration enforcement. But, in fact, the forced migration of refugees is better explained—and can only truly be addressed—by looking to the “push” factors of violence, poverty, and exclusion in refugees’ home countries.

Musalo and Lee document heavy-handed enforcement tactics against asylum seekers under Obama, such as raids, family detention, interdiction south of the border, and expedited screening procedures. These policies were in tension with our international and domestic legal obligations to refugees, and also laid the groundwork for even harsher treatment under Trump. The authors’ orientation is both historical and prospective, looking to the past to understand present circumstances and to derive solutions going forward. The article pays particular attention to the ways in which deterrence-based approaches repeat errant policies against Central American asylum seekers in the 1980s—and to the United States’ responsibility for creating conditions of extreme violence and deprivation in Central America through misguided foreign policy and mass deportations.

Their final section on recommendations remains relevant to the present day. Although the current Administration has been disinclined to listen to calls for a rational and humane refugee policy, the lessons of the past continue to ring true. An effective approach to our regional refugee crisis must address real reasons for refugee flight. Regional stability—and domestic and international law—requires the U.S. government to recognize the crisis south of our border as a humanitarian one, and those fleeing it as refugees. Musalo and Lee persuasively demonstrate that our government should abandon hostile, deterrence-based policies against those refugees both because they are wrong, and because they don’t work.