The Price of Asylum

May 2, 2019

On April 29th, the Trump Administration issued a presidential memorandum directing the Department of Homeland Security to develop new regulations to amend the asylum process. One of the more controversial directives includes establishing a fee to apply for asylum. While at first glance, an application fee may seem like a reasonable response to a backlog of asylum applications, it won’t stem the humanitarian crisis that is exploding in San Diegans’ backyards.

While technically legal under the Immigration and Nationality Act, charging application fees to vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution runs counter to American values. In fact, a majority of countries around the world refuse to charge a fee because they recognize that asylum is a human right. Many of those fleeing persecution don’t have the resources to pay for application fees, and this doesn’t make their fear of persecution any less real. Instead, an asylum fee is likely to result in greater numbers of asylum seekers in Tijuana camps and makeshift migrant settlements.

San Diego’s economy is closely intertwined with that of Tijuana. The main border crossing, the San Ysidro Port of Entry, is one of the busiest in the world. Approximately 90,000 people venture north each day from Tijuana – thousands of them to work in San Diego. Furthermore, the entire border region is incredibly productive economically, to the tune of $220 billion each year. A humanitarian crisis in Tijuana is an economic crisis in San Diego.

As the camps in Tijuana overflow with asylum seekers (whom are a distinct group from refugees, legally speaking), it is also likely that desperate families will turn to riskier methods to enter the United States. Many already work with smugglers to cross the border, risking horrible situations, like abandoned children or perishing in the harsh desert environments.

And it’s not surprising why migrants are willing to take these risks. A Human Rights First report conducted in July 2017 determined that Mexico is not a safe country for asylum seekers from Central America to reside in. The report is damning. It found that

“...migrants and refugees face acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking, and other grave harms in Mexico… Even asylum seekers and refugees granted protection in Mexico remain at risk from persecutors with transnational reach.”

Under these circumstances, it is neither surprising nor unreasonable that desperate families may attempt to find safety however they can.

Even those asylum seekers who would be able to pay an asylum fee and receive a favorable judgment during the credible fear interview would still face additional obstacles under the proposed asylum policy changes. Under current law, asylum seekers are unable to apply for work authorization for 150 days following submission of their asylum claim. This already presents an undue economic burden on the asylum seeker. However, the presidential memorandum goes one step further, requiring asylum seekers to pay an additional fee to apply for work authorization while their asylum request is reviewed.

This doesn’t make sense. If a Department of Homeland Security official has already indicated that an asylum seeker has a credible fear of persecution worthy of asylum review, why would we make it harder for them to obtain legal work in our county? Once again, this only serves to undermine the economic potential that asylum seekers could bring to San Diego businesses.

As Americans, we’ve prided ourselves on being the Shining City on the Hill since the times of John Winthrop. What we do sets an example for other nations, and we owe it to the world (and ourselves) to treat the most vulnerable among us with the dignity and compassion they deserve. This proposal falls short of helping San Diego’s economy – and of that humanitarian goal enshrined by John Winthrop.