Asylum is a Human Right Photo on US-Mexico Border

By Gonzalo Mercado, Director of Transnational Programs

While President Biden is shredding the asylum system in an effort to mollify political opponents who are exploiting a human rights crisis along the southern border, the British government is considering a cruel bill to deter refugees crossing the English Channel.

Both countries are heading down a disastrous path. Leaders intimidated by hard-right anti-immigrant opposition are leaving migrants in the cold through cruelly legalistic and restrictive readings of international treaties and norms. Two democracies that once were beacons in the global fight against fascism and xenophobia are turning out the lights. There is grave risk that other countries will follow suit.

President Biden needs to turn back and strengthen asylum, not weaken it. He needs to restore the United States’ deep commitment to refugees and honor the country’s legal, moral, and international obligations to defend the defenseless. He needs to lead by example and support those in Britain who are fighting to uphold both the spirit and letter of international law.

These are dangerous times, when demagogues around the world are whipping up fear and hatred of migrants and the foreign-born. The U.N. Refugee Convention and other international treaties have guided the world toward humane and principled treatment of refugees for more than half a century. They are long standing international norms with the force of law behind them. But ultimately, they are just powerful words — they need leaders to honor them in practice. Otherwise, they will fall apart.

But the Biden plan is to tell migrants: If you can’t afford to apply for protection in other countries on your way to the U.S., you don’t deserve asylum here — get out. A bill in Britain’s Parliament tells migrants: If you come by an “irregular route,” in a small boat across the Channel or in the back of a truck, we will presume you are ineligible for asylum — get out. Ironically, the only winners will be criminal smuggling syndicates, predatory labor recruiters, and military who have recently found demand for their services to invade Mexico.

The Biden Administration has been using medically bogus reasoning to turn away migrants en masse at the border, and considering reinstating family detention — locking up migrant children with their parents — repudiating his own false promise of being a more “humane” and “compassionate” president than his disastrous predecessor.

It was one thing for Trump to endorse dastardly policy like this. No reasonable democracy would emulate him. But President Biden risks becoming the Asylum-Law-Ender-in-Chief, as Senator Menendez recently suggested. He doesn’t just mean here in the US. If President Biden continues down a cruel path that favors deterrence by threat of death, he will provide a permission structure for fascists in the global north.

This must stop.

Who is speaking out? Where are the daughters and sons and descendants of immigrants and refugees in the United States speaking up for the most fundamental of family values — the rights of families to stay together and to escape persecution to safety in welcoming countries? In Britain, a former soccer star and popular BBC host, Gary Lineker, bravely spoke the truth on Twitter. He called his country’s new asylum rule “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” The BBC briefly suspended him for violating its rules of impartiality.

But what Gary Lineker said was true. He showed rare courage. It’s encouraging that some brave citizens are risking their jobs to speak out in defense of immigrants. But we need our elected leaders to stand up— they are the ones who can keep the world’s asylum system intact and strong.

Nativists and xenophobes are battling to send us back to a world ruled by strongmen and propaganda. As someone born and raised during Pinochet’s civic-military dictatorship, this is something I know all too well. But others are standing up for human rights, international laws and norms, and raising the alarm. President Biden, will you be part of the problem, or will you restore faith that the US can be part of the solution?