The Ideological Limits of Asylum

We must grant refuge to migrants fleeing poverty and violence and increase the free movement of all people. But we can’t forget that the conditions Central American migrants are fleeing stem directly from US intervention in the region.

A Honduran child and her mother, fleeing poverty and violence in their home country, wait along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the US on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas. Spencer Platt / Getty

In 1954, a multinational corporation based in New Orleans suborned the US government to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Guatemala. The United Fruit Company — the progenitor of today’s Chiquita Brands International — had many friends in Washington’s high places, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles. It also had some enemies, such as President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán of Guatemala, whose policies of land reform were rather inconvenient for the fruit company that owned much of Guatemala’s land.

Fearful of Árbenz’s alleged “communism” (and of his impact on company profits), the executives of the United Fruit Company lobbied the US government to intervene. Their efforts came to fruition in Operation PBSUCCESS, a CIA-led coup that sent Árbenz into exile and installed the right-wing dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.

The 1954 coup d’état was just the start of an imperialistic horror show in Guatemala. Over the next four decades, a series of US-backed dictators unleashed a campaign of repression and atrocity in a gruesome civil war. It was so bad that in 1999, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for US complicity in the thirty-six-year-long bloodbath. Curiously, US complicity was not mentioned in the 2013 trial and conviction of General Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide of Maya civilians.

The past, as they say, is prologue. Today, Guatemala holds its rank among the world’s most violent countries. Decades of conflict and inequality made the country fertile ground for gangs and general criminality; in some cases, organized criminal networks grew out of former security and intelligence forces.

In fact, all three countries of Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle” — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — are chart-toppers in homicide. And although the details differ in each country, the region shares a common history of mass poverty and political instability, all against the backdrop of Yanquí meddling.

No discussion of immigrants and asylum-seekers, especially from Central America, should begin without addressing such sticky facts as these. Everybody knows that immigrants come to the United States “to seek a better life” for themselves and their families. What’s missing here is a discussion of the urgency, and the root causes, of their displacement. What’s missing is the fact that the conditions which they flee are political in origin — at least in part, they find their origin in decisions made in Washington, D.C.

By any sober measure, we should recognize such displaced persons as having valid claims for seeking refuge. Yet the vast majority of asylum applicants from the Northern Triangle are denied, and the US government continues to narrow the scope of asylum grants.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the callousness and cruelty of the Trump administration. In reality, this trend of refusing refuge to the victims of capital and empire predates Donald Trump by a long shot — it’s built into the legal construct of “refugee” itself.

The Ideological Roots of the Refugee

Just as President Clinton was saying sorry for US mischief in Central America, he was pulling the rug out from under thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans facing deportation after fleeing to the States in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. To his credit, Clinton pledged to change the rules of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 — which made it easier for Cubans and Nicaraguans, fleeing left-wing governments, to seek asylum than for Salvadorans and Guatemalans, fleeing right-wing dictators — and called the double-standard “wrong.”

The double standard was nothing new. It goes as far back as 1917, when the October Revolution brought the concept of the political refugee to the international stage. In the early twentieth century, the concept of refugee had a particular meaning. It meant someone who was fleeing from Communism.

The shocks and traumas of the Second World War, in particular the Nazi genocide and extermination of Jews and others, put new stress on the refugee question. In 1951, the United Nations approved the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, whose definition of “refugee” reflects those fears (and the guilty conscience of those states that turned away people fleeing persecution):

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Still, the refugee regime of the twentieth century was very much a creature of the Cold War. As refugee scholar Gil Loescher has described, “recognizing persecution and identifying its perpetrators caused no headaches and the grant of asylum was generally used to reaffirm the failures of communism and the benevolence of the West.”

For the United States, recognizing persecution and its perpetrators was easy — because “persecution” was something only America’s enemies did.

Even with the wounds of the Holocaust still fresh, the first major refugee law in the United States, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, was designed to grant admission to people fleeing Communism while restricting over 90 percent of displaced Jews. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 defined a refugee as someone seeking refuge in a noncommunist state, and a 1957 amendment, redefined it as someone fleeing persecution from a communist state.

The postwar move to shelter victims of persecution may have had humanitarian-sounding rhetoric, but it was compromised by anticommunist ideology. Refugees and asylees were valued to the extent they could be fit into a geopolitical tug of war — and tough luck for the rest. It wasn’t until 1980 that US refugee law took a more neutral character; but even then, people fleeing “unfriendly” governments received preferential treatment compared with those unlucky enough to be persecuted by the “good guys.”

Between 1983 and 1986 — the years after General Montt’s tierra arrasada butchering of Guatemala — the United States admitted less than 1 percent of Guatemalan refugees. In the same period, 60 percent of Iranian, 51 percent of Romanian, and 34 percent of Polish refugees were welcomed into the free world.

Persecution by Any Other Name

In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration figured out a clever way to justify the US sponsorship of terror operations in Nicaragua: paramilitary death squads are “terrorists” when we don’t like them, and “freedom fighters” when we do. Reagan found a similar trick to justify why some victims of US-sponsored terror wouldn’t qualify as refugees: they’re not refugees at all, but economic migrants.

Current refugee law has progressed from its self-serving Cold War origins. Yet it retains this basic and unquestioned distinction between the refugee, who is worthy of asylum, and the migrant, who is not. (That this distinction maps easily onto US geopolitical concerns is, one imagines, neither here nor there.)

The classic refugee, as understood in the UN Refugee Convention and in US law, is one who flees from persecution that’s political in nature. This could be based on explicitly political repression, racial oppression, national subjugation, or religious discrimination. Either way, the idea is that the refugee has been targeted for political reasons. Owing to its origins in the middle of last century, such persecution is usually understood to be attributable to governments and states.

The mere migrant, on the other hand, is not so sympathetic.

The migrant’s reasons for moving are economic in nature. They may have some trouble with violent crime back home, but on the whole, they’ve come to America simply to make a “better life” for themselves. (Or in the lexicon of less charitable xenophobes: to steal our jobs, to corrupt our streets, to dilute the nation’s purity.)

For many years, some of these “undeserving” migrants from Central America were able nonetheless to seek asylum on the grounds of domestic or gang violence. Yet even this precious lifeline — rare and difficult as it was to reach already — was only recently revoked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a self-referred decision stating that asylum law “does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

The fact remains that those misfortunes are prolific and profuse. In Central America’s Northern Triangle, many live in constant fear of torture, rape, extortion, trafficking, sexual slavery, and murder, as well as the less exciting (but no less lethal) threats of sickness and starvation.

These misfortunes may not take the classic form of state persecution that one saw in twentieth-century horrors. But they are political in origin — they are the products, direct or indirect, of political choices made at the service of capital and empire.

Fleeing such conditions is not strictly a voluntary act, but oftentimes a question of life or death. Then, after scrounging up whatever cash they can to leave, entering into massive debt, and making the perilous trek across the continent, these “migrants” are booted from the land of the free because their reasons for coming aren’t political enough.

Political, All Too Political

America has never quite grown out of our Cold War ways of thinking. Refugee and asylum law may have shed its formerly explicit ideological bias. Yet there remains an unflagging faith in the inherent goodness (or anyway, benignity) of capitalist regimes. Persecution only happens when our enemies are doing it.

Problems under self-declared socialist regimes are always attributable to socialist governments, and usually to the ideology itself. But simply point to the catastrophic poverty and deprivation of capitalist societies, and suddenly it’s the fault of the individual or their family. It is, at best, a merely economic problem.

But economics does not exist in an apolitical vacuum. Capitalism is neither natural nor neutral — it is human-made. It is a system of domination of one class by another, maintained by coercion. This would be true even in the absence of imperialistic meddling. But it’s essential to this system to obscure and mystify the fact that capitalism’s deprivations are, in fact, political decisions.

Today, as stories of mistreatment of asylum-seekers ripple through the media, it’s important to bear in mind the massive hurdles they would still face under a more “benevolent” immigration enforcement. Humane conditions for asylees is only a minimum demand; the real struggle is making sure they aren’t sent right back to the places which they fled.

The cause of granting refuge to migrants fleeing poverty and violence is good in itself. So is the free movement of people in general. But the Left must take special care to demystify and re-politicize the reasons of forcible displacement.

It’s time to move beyond the twentieth-century conception of the refugee as solely the victim of state persecution. Such things are not the driving force compelling mass movement today. The fact that these conditions may not match the reactive, historical, and ideologically polluted notion of “persecution” doesn’t make them any less dire, nor their causes less sinister.

They are refugees, in other words, and the Left should demand their recognition as such.

For too long has the United States felt free to help lay waste to entire countries and skimped on cleaning up the mess. If an internationalist left is good for anything, its task must be to reverse both.