The Trump administration wants to make people fleeing persecution in their home countries pay for something they’ve long gotten for free: the right to apply for asylum in the United States.
As an immigration attorney and a law professor who has represented people seeking asylum for over a decade, I believe this change, which could go into effect as soon as the summer of 2019, would be not just cruel but also unusual. At present, only Australia and Fiji charge fees to would-be asylum-seekers.
But making immigrants escaping harm and persecution shoulder the cost of processing their paperwork is in line with other trends in U.S. immigration law over the last several decades. Fees for everything from green cards to naturalization are not only common, but increasingly costly and mandatory.
“You must submit the correct fees or we will reject your form,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that oversees these applications, warns on its website. It relies primarily on revenue from these fees to cover its entire budget.
Immigrants who have suffered past persecution, or who fear future persecution, on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group may qualify for asylum. The process can take months or years. The nation’s immigration courts currently have a backlog of over 869,000 cases.
President Donald Trump often denigrates the asylum system, and asylum applicants.
“People want to come in. They shouldn’t be coming in,” he has said, telling asylum-seekers to “turn around.”
Yet this country is bound by both domestic and international law to provide protection to those fleeing persecution.
The U.S. is a signatory of United Nations treaties forged in 1951 and 1967 that spell out the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. Immigration directives issued and laws passed after millions of Jews, Roma and others perished during the Holocaust established frameworks and systems for asylum applications and processes.
In short, the nation has legal obligations to allow non-citizens to seek asylum, and to vet and process those cases in accordance with domestic and international laws.
The asylum rules and regulations on the books originated in 1974 and were refined in 1980. Asylum law has evolved since then, explicitly without fees – even as fees became routine for other immigration applications.
The rationale for keeping it that way is simple: The ability to pay should never stand in the way of refugees and asylum-seekers obtaining the protection to which they are legally entitled.