Where Cato Gets It Wrong on Asylum

by Jason Dzubow on April 30, 2014

in Asylum, Immigration

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The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh recently published a piece in the Huffington Post called Saving the Asylum System. The title accurately reflects the author’s point, and of course I agree that our asylum system should be preserved (and–really–cherished). But where Mr. Nowrasteh gets it wrong, I think, is his analysis of the problem.

Recipe for a refugee: Take one economic migrant, add persecutors, mix thoroughly.

Recipe for a refugee: Take one economic migrant, add persecutors, mix thoroughly.

The “fundamental problem” according to Mr. Nowrasteh is that intending economic migrants who arrive illegally at the border and get caught are requesting asylum as a way of gaining entry into the U.S. to work. He views this as an “unintended consequence of severe restrictions that make it exceedingly difficult for lower-skilled immigrants to enter the country legally.” He posits that “creating a low-skilled guest worker visa program to channel would-be unauthorized immigrants into the legal system [would remove] the incentive for some of them to make dubious asylum claims.”

Cato is a Libertarian think tank, and Mr. Nowrasteh’s proposal is a Libertarian solution (free flow of labor and all that).

Before I respond, I must admit to a certain prejudice against Libertarianism in general. To use a fancy law school word, I find the whole philosophy jejune. It seems perfectly fine for high school juniors with Ayn Rand fantasies, but I feel it fails utterly in the real world. In other words, to me, “Libertarian think tank” is an oxymoron. On the other hand, I have some good friends who are staunch Libertarians, and sometimes they even give me free cigars (though I suppose this must be in exchange for some utility they get from my company–or maybe they just hope I die from lung cancer). So perhaps I am being a bit too harsh. Anyway, the point is, it’s only fair to put my prejudice on the table before I respond.

That said, I think that Mr. Nowrasteh is simply wrong that most–or even a significant portion–of asylum seekers are economic migrants. To be sure, asylum seekers come to the U.S. (as opposed to Namibia, for example) because they can settle here, get  a job, and build a new life. But this does not make them economic migrants in the normal sense of the phrase. Economic migrants are not fleeing their country because their life or freedom is threatened; they are leaving for a better job.

Stated another way, with all immigrants (including asylum seekers) there is a push and a pull. For refugees, the most important “push” factor is a threat to life or freedom in the home country. For economic migrants, the push is a bad economic situation. The pull for both groups is freedom, opportunity, peace, the ability to gain acceptance, and all the other tangibles and intangibles of “America.”

So why do I think that most asylum seekers are not economic migrants who file fraudulent asylum claims in order to circumvent immigration restrictions?

The main reason, I must admit, is anecdotal. I have represented hundreds of asylum seekers, and while I have suspicions about the motivations of some clients, most clearly face threats in their home countries. Also, many of my clients held good jobs in their home countries and they are unlikely to achieve the same level of success in the United States (due to language barriers, lack of transferable skills, etc.).

Another reason I believe that asylum seekers are not mere economic migrants is because countries that produce large numbers of asylum seekers have widespread human rights problems. The source country for the most asylum seekers in the U.S. is–by far–China. Of late, China has produced between 20 and 25% of affirmative asylum cases and a whopping 45% of defensive asylum grants in FY2013. China has a repressive government and–probably more importantly for purposes of this discussion–Congress passed a law to provide asylum to victims of forced family planning, and these people come almost exclusively from China. While the U.S. economy provides more opportunities than China’s, the repressive nature of the government combined with a special law to help Chinese asylum seekers suggests that asylum applicants from China are more than just economic migrants–they are refugees.

A possible counter argument here is that the increase in credible fear applicants, who have lately been overwhelming the asylum system, comes from people arriving from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which all have very low asylum grant rates. There are two reasons why I think this argument fails, however. First, many people seeking asylum from these countries face severe threats and persecution from gangs and cartels, or from crime and domestic violence. Such people are genuinely afraid (for good reason), but they rarely qualify for asylum since they cannot show that the feared harm is “on account of” a protected ground. Second, all these countries are very violent places. The less violent countries in the region–Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama–have weak economies compared to the U.S. (especially mi país Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere aside from Haiti). If Mr. Nowrasteh’s theory is correct, we would expect these countries to be sending us comparable numbers of (fraudulent) asylum seekers, but they are not. To me, all this supports the notion that people leaving the region and seeking asylum in the U.S. are driven more by a fear of harm than by the desire for a better job.

So in the end, while I am happy that the Cato Institute is thinking creatively about ways to preserve our asylum system, I am not convinced by their analysis. While a guest worker program (especially for Mexico and Central America) might marginally reduce the number of asylum seekers, the overlap between refugees and economic migrants is pretty minimal. If we want to reduce the number of asylum seekers at our Southern border, we should spend more time supporting good governance in the region and less time meddling in our neighbors’ affairs.

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