This interview was originally featured in franknews
Today, we’re excited to share a conversation we recently had with Yael Schacher about her work – migrants, refugees, and diplomacy.
Diplomacy is directed toward deterring migration, but people will move again and again until they achieve security and dignity.
This interview with Yael Schacher was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for franknews.
Tatti Ribeiro: Would you introduce yourself?
Yael Schacher: My name is Yael Schacher. I’m the director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, an independent policy-focused non-governmental organization in Washington D.C. that advocates for the rights of, and humanitarian support for, forcibly displaced people around the world.
TR: I know your work involves visiting the physical border a lot – what are you looking to understand better?
YS: Well, I think it is important to emphasize that the border as the primary locus of asylum-seeking in this country is a recent phenomenon — this has only been true for the past 20 or 30 years. There are two reasons for this.
One, people are both more mobile but lack legal pathways into the United States, and remote entry controls have broadened so that coming by land – even via a dangerous and costly route – is a more viable way into the country. (It’s very hard to fly into the United States and seek asylum; you need a passport and a visa to do that).
And, two, there is a lot more violence and displacement going on in Latin America and elsewhere. Conflicts are protracted and compounded by climate change; civilians are targeted and infrastructure is destroyed. Diplomacy is directed toward deterring migration but people will move again and again until they achieve security and dignity. Advocates have been pushing hard to expand who we think of as worthy of refuge and also to change the way the United States receives migrants at the border.
When I started at Refugees International, literally every month, I went to a different part of the border just to try to understand, what does this look like? How do people cross, and how do people get detained? What do ports of entry look like and what does border patrol do? How does it coordinate with ICE, with state and local officials, with NGOs? What does it look like on the Mexican side? What is the shelter and security situation there? The border is long, conditions vary, and I had – and still have – so much to learn.
TR: The border has been described to me as a “manufactured crisis”. When did the border become the central focus of the immigration narrative in the US?
YS: I think what happened was, in the late 1970s there was a quota put on how many people could come to the United States from countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Suddenly, there was a very strict cap on how many Mexicans could legally immigrate to the US. The 1980s were all about unauthorized immigration from Mexico. There was some legislation that helped people legalize in the late 80s, but who can legally immigrate on visas is quite limited; the line is impossibly long. On top of that, in the 1990s, the border became highly securitized and highly technologized – which increased even more after 9/11. The 1996 Immigration Law ramped up the criminalization of unauthorized migration. Mexicans were no longer given “voluntary departure” – basically just kicked out of the U.S.– but removed, barred from admission, and told that, if they tried to cross again, they would be jailed. The US also deported a lot of immigrants with gang affiliations to Central America, where they wreaked havoc. Further, people in unauthorized status in the United States couldn’t regularize their status and couldn’t legally bring over their relatives. Neither can people– many from Central America– with Temporary Protected Status.
And then there is displacement, and people moving because of these displacement crises that don’t fit easily within our refugee definition. For example, everyone fleeing from gang violence in Central America does not fit into the textbook refugee cases – but they aren’t actually voluntary movements. This shows the strain on our refugee definition. Sometimes you can find creative ways to show that people who have been displaced by climate or because of their gender can qualify under the traditional refugee definition, but a lot of people fall through the cracks.
Beginning in the 2010s you start seeing border arrivals becoming a bigger percentage of the asylum seekers and you start to see increasing numbers of children and families arriving at the border, turning themselves into the border patrol and asking for asylum. And the United States doesn’t have a set-up to receive them, having spent the previous decade worrying about threats to security and trying to catch people trying to sneak in and then detain and rapidly deport them.
So there is a confluence of factors why the number of asylum seekers at the border have gone up. And since 2018, the numbers have gone up significantly. The numbers are bigger than the 2014 wave of folks who came under the Obama administration. It’s not bigger if you look at the eighties or the early nineties, that’s true, but that was before we had this 1996 Immigration Law that changed the dynamics of migration.
In terms of asylum, too, in the 1990s the United States cut off asylum for people who tried to arrive by sea. It is not surprising to me that Haitians and Cubans– who face insecurity at home and have ties in the United States– have comprised a large number of asylum seekers at the border in recent years. The US cut off other loci of asylum– and the border remains. What we have seen increasingly since 2018 is policy attempt after policy attempt to restrict access to asylum at the border– whether through the metering policy of turning asylum seekers at ports of entry, the Remain in Mexico policy of requiring that asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration court dates, or Title 42, the COVID-19 era ban on asylum seeking at the border.
TR: Right now there’s a specific influx and focus on Venezuela. Why?
YS: The exodus from Venezuela has been going on since 2015. Now, some of the Venezuelans migrating are coming directly from Venezuela, but a lot of them are coming from other countries where they’ve been living for a few years like Colombia, Peru, or Ecuador.
The pandemic decimated economies in Latin America. So if you were a Venezuelan, and already marginal in the economy in a new country, it hit you even harder. An October 2022 report from the UNHCR said that 4.3 million displaced Venezuelans couldn’t feed their families or find stable housing and employment; many couldn’t send their kids to school. It is not surprising that they’re moving again!
Until recently, Venezuelans who came to the border were able to pursue asylum, but since October 12, Venezuelans are subject to the same Title 42 expulsion policy as we’ve been subjecting other people to.
Democrats are feeling concerned about the rising number of people coming to the border and feeling pressure to get the numbers down. So what we get is a refugee status that is under strain already, and a lack of voices standing up to defend the right to seek asylum. There are few voices championing the right to seek asylum for Venezuelans, let alone fighting to expand protections to others who are displaced. There are few policymakers calling for much-needed expansion of what we mean by a refugee. We are seeing very little use of refugee resettlement, rather than parole, which is just temporary protection, and even that isn’t being used equitably, as I have recently written about.
TR: To me, it doesn’t feel like the United States is incapable of absorbing however many people want to migrate. The scarcity feels projected. How do you find yourself talking about how migrants fit into the country and the US economy?
YS: That’s a great question. I’ve been tracking the situation in Washington DC, to where migrants have been bussed since the spring, mostly by Governor Abbott of Texas. I have been dismayed frankly at the willful refusal of DC officials to consider ways to integrate the newcomers and to consider them future residents; the city’s priority was sending them on their way to other places. It set up an Office of Migrant Services– and that word (migrant) is deliberate. These weren’t immigrants, they weren’t to be considered residents of the city; they were migrants passing through but not welcomed to settle down. Of course, all of these people need assistance at the beginning. And the argument I heard at the City Council was: locally we can’t provide anything because we rely on federal benefits to support families, and these families aren’t entitled to those benefits. But overall, their settling here would be a net benefit to the city. I mean, the economic benefits of immigration are undisputed. Workers are needed and all the newcomers want work permits.
But, there is a scarcity mentality. I think back to the 1996 law and the way immigrants were dramatically restricted from public services. It becomes a vicious cycle for immigrants where they are seen only as potential burdens and not as potential contributors. The Supreme Court is hearing a case this term focused on whether states can sue the Biden administration and prevent changes in immigration policy because they claim immigrants are a fiscal burden. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is not a place where we are going to hear a lot of pushback against this emphasis on immigration as a burden (rather than a benefit. )
I myself prefer not to have to spend a lot of time making arguments about the economic benefits of immigration since my focus is on humanitarian admissions: access to refuge should not be contingent on economic contributions. On the other hand: the sharp distinction between refugee and economic migrant belies the fact that, of course, refugees also need to work, should have access to labor markets, and that the right to seek asylum itself entails the right to seek economic security and well-being.
TR: It becomes difficult to separate the humanitarian conversation from economics when immigration is spoken of as only bad.
YS: And I think there is also this conceptual divide between newcomers, asylum seekers, and those who are already here. That has always been there, but the partisanship in Congress has made it worse. And since the 1990s there has been this effort by Democrats to increase border security and enforcement against recent border crossers in order to get immigration reform done or the Dream Act passed. But nothing has come from this trade-off in Congress– beyond increased border control.
TR: Even with Obama, there were a lot of attempts at negotiating and moving in good faith to try to compromise. Obviously, he didn’t get what he thought he would get, and I think his legacy on immigration is tarnished in that way.
YS: I agree with that. You see him in his first term deporting hundreds of thousands of people, presumably trying to win over support for comprehensive immigration reform. But he also made use of executive discretion to protect some people from arrest and deportation– which angered the Border Patrol and ICE. And that created a dynamic that we still live with today. The Border Patrol Union and BP agents publicly attack President Biden! This is an agency that Biden is supposed to be in charge of! It is bizarre. A recent article in the Washington Examiner quotes an agent saying this: “When I joined the Army, I took an oath to protect our country from all enemies, both foreign and domestic…When I joined the Patrol, I took the same oath. Now it seems that we are fighting domestic enemies, not foreign. Who are the domestic enemies? The ones that [are] letting foreigners come in by breaking the law and rewarding them.” This captures so much about the way the Border Patrol views arriving asylum seekers and the President’s attempt to manage their reception.
TR: The politicization of the military and the border patrol and the security apparatuses is wild.
Border patrol is also really interesting because the jobs are so tied to the local economy. I think that complicates people’s attitudes about scaling these things back.
YS: Absolutely. I remember when the videos and pictures of the Border Patrol’s handling of Haitians at Del Rio were publicized last fall, there was a lot of discussion about the culture of prejudice within the Border Patrol, and a former Commissioner defended the border patrol as having a very diverse staff, especially a lot of Latino officers – which is true. But has nothing to do with the mistreatment of migrants. The culture of enforcement agencies, and the procedures used to arrest and detain, and the conditions in these places of detention, and the assumptions of most of the agents and guards about the people they arrest and detain. When I have visited CBP processing and ICE detention centers in south and central Texas, the guards were mostly Spanish speakers, mostly Mexican Americans. These were some of the best jobs in town, many of the towns not having much else on offer. I truly believe that one of the best ways to limit the growth of detention in Texas and Louisiana is to get big employers to move into towns that need the jobs and the revenue currently provided by private prison companies.
TR: It seems impossibly complex. What can be done locally when there is no national support or leadership? What in terms of policy do you think people should be paying attention to?
YS: I focus on how countries are externalizing asylum – meaning, for example, the way that the US pushes asylum seekers into Mexico or gets other countries in the Western Hemisphere to do its enforcement. We have also seen similar policies across the Atlantic: countries use migrants as pawns, trying to foment migration crises, which are turned into opportunities to curtail migrant rights! A couple of months ago, Belarus deliberately facilitated the movement of asylum seekers from the Middle East to the Polish border. The EU refused to take them in and has promoted the idea that, if a state instrumentalizes migrants in this way, other countries can cut off their access to asylum. I worry that in the Americas, that might turn into a policy whereby those trying to escape harm but unable to access a legal pathway to safety might turn to a smuggler, which would be used as a reason to bar them from access to asylum. This really comes down to blaming the victim, and I am very concerned about that trend.
I can’t say right now that I see many silver linings in terms of migration policy. I do have to say, the reception I saw in DC – the hard work of mutual aid organizations and hundreds of people stepping in to help when the city didn’t – was heartening. There is local support for immigration, and I hope to focus on figuring out how to translate the pockets of support for immigrants that I see into actual political will. The problem is the lack of vocal political support and sufficient federal resources. Democrats also lack an affirmative vision. We need to connect that local support to federal politics.
TR: Yeah – there needs to be an affirmative motion rather than constantly being on the defensive. And then it is the question of who is worthy of coming? Like, how many Ukrainians are being allowed in right now.
YS: The lack of equity in immigration policy is a serious problem. I do think that the Biden administration cares more about equity than past administrations have. And yet: last spring, they admitted thousands of Ukrainians while expelling thousands of Haitians. And now, why aren’t we treating Venezuelans like we treat the Ukrainians?
We have gotten into this place where we have a nationality-by-nationality asylum policy. This is the opposite of what refugee law is supposed to be. The refugee standard is supposed to be a universal one and refugee status should not be dependent on nationality or race or religion or mode of entry or foreign policy or enforcement considerations or geopolitics; we have never lived up to that. And very obviously aren’t now.
Banner Cover Photo Caption: AP Photo/Hans-Maximo Musielik