Asylum, Sanctuary and Refuge

Asylum, Sanctuary and Refuge


Asylum dates back to medieval times when an individual could seek refuge or sanctuary against persecution in a church. It is one of the hallmarks of civilization, and an important element of one’s humanity.


America was founded by the Pilgrims, refugees fleeing religious persecution in England. It accepted Catholics fleeing religious persecution in England. It accepted French Huguenots fleeing political persecution in France.


It accepted Cuban refugees after the rise of Castro, and it accepted Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. It welcomed many Jewish refugees from Europe after the Holocaust. It accepted many Persian refugees after the fall of the Shah of Iran. It accepted many refugees from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.


Before the Second World War, the US government denied refuge to nearly 1000 Jews (fleeing religious persecution and death from Hitler) and seeking asylum in this country on the ship, the Saint Louis – a really shameful element of our nation’s past anti-Semitism.


The United Nations adopted policies to govern treatment of refugees in all nations in 1951.  The US is a signatory. Religious and political persecution, credible threats of violence and loss of life are among the reasons why asylum is granted.


“Asylum has three basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. Third, an applicant must establish that the government is either involved in the persecution, or unable to control the conduct of private actors.”


One applies for asylum at the border or from within this country. It typically takes 1000 days and intensive screening for an application to be processed. There is a backlog of over 300,000 cases. Only about 20,000 applications were approved in 2016 – the most recent year for which there is data.


The citizens of the three small Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala represented about 30% of approved asylum speakers due to the terrible violence engulfing all three countries. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world and dissenters are subject to jail, death and banning. El Salvador is plagued by awful gang violence, following its decades long Civil War. Genocide of the Mayan Indians and other political dissidents by the military has plagued Guatemala for decades.


The caravan of what is now estimated as 3,000 asylum seekers from these three small countries walking to the American border to apply for asylum has been elevated into a political campaign event by President Trump. He has ordered 15,000 troops to the border to deter peaceful asylum seekers from requesting asylum and rants shameful untruths about immigrants at his political rallies.


Why he thinks this is good politics in the lead up to an election is a mystery to me, but it is justified as needed to secure turn out from his base. To me this is far more akin to the odious refusal to allow Jewish refugees on the Saint Louis to seek asylum from Hitler. The press is failing to explain the laws of asylum, the circumstances in their countries of origin and the differences between economic migrants (many of the undocumented) and persons seeking international refuge from long standing political, ethnic and religious persecution and violence in their home countries.



Birthright Citizenship (Jus Soli)

Marshall Tuck for State Superintendent of Schools