An Inauguration Charge for Joe Biden: Reform Asylum with Anti-Racist Immigration Protocols

By: Helen T. Boursier

November 24, 2020

Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

President-elect Joseph Biden has a daunting task to reverse racist immigration policies and practices meted out by the Trump administration against migrants who are desperately seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration destroyed the asylum process, creating an opportunity for the Biden administration to redesign U.S. asylum from scratch, so that it prioritizes ethical protection for the most vulnerable. In the spirit of a “charge” that would be given to a newly ordained minister, I respectfully offer this twofold inauguration charge for president-elect Joe Biden: (1) immediately repeal the racist, exclusionary immigration laws, policies, and practices that the Trump administration instituted in its mission to eliminate asylum; (2) establish ethical anti-racist immigration legislation that prioritizes protection for asylum seekers and fulfills our legal responsibilities to the international community.

U.S. Immigration Protections for Forced Migrants

The United States differentiates between “refugee” and “asylee,” as technical terms which define two pathways for non-residents to apply to live in the United States. Trump set an impossibly low limit for refugees and then systematically worked to eliminate asylum altogether, destroying the emergency relief and protection aspects of U.S. immigration and nullifying this nation’s legal and moral international responsibilities. As immigration attorney Hope Frye emphasized, “The president can’t numerically restrict asylum, so he made it impossible” [1].

Under the Trump administration’s policies, asylum seekers are forced to remain unprotected in what Judith Butler calls a “suspended zone” [2]. They are unwelcome in the United States, in perennial danger in Mexico, and unable to return to the homelands they are fleeing. An asylum seeker who is escaping from death threats in Honduras with her 11-year-old son said she did not request assistance first in Guatemala before journeying to the United States because “it is a joke that they classify Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as ‘safe third countries.’” She added, “Let an American try to live one day in one of these countries, and they will see that I am right.” She said, “If my home country is unsafe and violent, the United States government clearly does not care. It only cares that Mexico keeps us. If our country or Mexico is a risk to our lives, well, that is our problem” [3].

Examples of Suffering from Asylum Seekers

A mother who crossed a bridge from Mexico to the United States at a legal point of entry to request asylum with her family said, “The court asks, ‘Are you an American citizen? Do you have permission to come to the United States?’ Questions that we obviously aren’t going to answer the way they want. After those questions, they say that, because of what we answered, they have the proof they need to deport us and remove us from the United States” [4]. 

Instead of receiving necessary protection in the United States, immigration officials escort vulnerable asylum seekers back across the bridge and leave them to fend for themselves in Mexico. It is common knowledge that the Mexico side of the southern border is not a safe place. Violence against women and girls in Central America, including Mexico, is particularly prevalent, terrifying, unrelenting, and lethal to the point of femicide—killing females because they are female. The “Remain in Mexico” program exacerbates femicide because it prevents urgent and necessary protection. Hence, the United States is complicit in femicide, which broadens accountability from individual perpetrators of femicide to include leaders, institutions, and governments that could provide protection—but choose not not—for females who are at-risk to femicide and who live within its jurisdiction, including asylees seeking protection [5]. 

A mother whose family is forced to remain in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, said, “This is a nightmare because here it is the same, if not worse than in Honduras...we are in even more danger here in Nuevo Laredo” [6]. A mother whose credible fear for asylum was denied explained, “I think that they want me to have missing body parts or to have lost one of my children in order to show credible fear.” This mother is particularly concerned about the cartel “watchers” who photographed her children as they were preparing to go to their court appointment in the United States. She said, “Most of all, they are watching my oldest one. She is 13 years old. We were so afraid” [7]. Another mother languishing there with her son lamented: “We cannot remain in Mexico.”

The situation at the migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, has its unique variation of suffering, deprivation, oppression, and horror. Since July 2019, asylum seekers have been living outdoors in tents near the Rio Grande River and the Gateway International Bridge to Brownsville, Texas. A core member of Team Brownsville said, “After tropical storm Hannah, the migrant camp became a muddy mess with spiders, rodents, snakes, and an infestation of mosquitos. It’s beyond horrific” [8]. The cartel presence also escalated. Several pregnant mothers became so desperate for the safety for their children that they have flung themselves onto a small inflatable toy raft (the type people play with in a swimming pool), loaded their small children with them, and paddled across the Rio Grande River. A chaplain who volunteers in Matamoros said, “These women cannot swim! How desperate do you have to be to fling yourself onto a tiny raft when you are nine months pregnant?” [9].

Anti-Racist Protection for Asylum Seekers

As easy as it is to blame Trump for social unrest in general and immigration injustice in particular, his “make America [white] again” emphasis personifies the existing racist attitudes, beliefs, and practices of his white base. The ideology about the United States as a welcoming nation for immigrants has never been the reality for non-whites, whether arriving in shackles or already living here. Racist exclusion also has included “not-the-right-type” of whites due to nationality or religion. “This is us,” as Eddie S. Glade Jr. explains. “And if we’re going to get past this, we can’t blame it on [Trump]. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us.” It is an ugliness that needs to be acknowledged, challenged, and changed.

The point W. E. B. Du Bois makes about the legacy of slavery in the United States and its lingering impact that “the whole social development of America, lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy” parallels to all people of color, particularly brown- and black-skinned migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Slavery, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and Black Lives Matter directly intersect with immigration policies and practices. Du Bois affirms the “slavery controversy...still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations.” The Biden administration needs to model and lead the United States to acknowledge its racist past in all aspects of American life, beginning with immediately repealing racist immigration laws, policies, and practices and implementing specifically anti-racist immigration legislation. 

Ethical immigration reform is a moral imperative. Given that world migration is at an all-time high, as a receiving nation, the United States needs to consider the harm, injustice, and moral horror that it perpetuates with exclusion from asylum. It is a moral imperative that also is in the best interest of this nation to restore protection for people who are fleeing for their lives. As former ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II proposes, “...unless we have a closer approximation of our values and our interests, then America is simply just another power that, for today, happens to be richer and have a bigger military than others.” Without a moral-ethical grounding, America becomes just another bully. Its citizenship will regain national and international respect when President-elect Biden leads America to embody moral, ethical, and political integrity in its actions at home and abroad, including prioritizing protection for the world’s most vulnerable who are desperately seeking asylum. May it be so. Amen.

  1. Hope Frye, interview with the author (November 11, 2020).
  2. Butler’s context is different, but her ideals apply to refugees forced to remain in Mexico. See, Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004; repr., New York: Verso, 2006), 67.
  3. Testimony (December 4, 2019).
  4. Except from a written testimony from an asylum seeker at a church-sponsored migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (December 4, 2019). Collected by Sister Denise LaRock and shared with permission.
  5. Helen T. Boursier, “Call to Accountability: Women’s Studies in Religion Critiques State Culpability to Feminicide through Border Controls and Exclusion from Asylum,” in The Rowman and Littlefield Handbook on Women’s Studies in Religion, ed. Helen T. Boursier (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming).
  6. Testimony (November 6, 2019).
  7. Testimony (December 4, 2019).
  8. Andrea Rudnick, interview with the author (September 11, 2020).
  9. Alma Ruth, interview with the author (September 10, 2020).
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