The Dignity of the Asylum Seeker

Imagine that you have just escaped your home country by foot, boat, train, or air because of an imminent danger or risk of persecution. If you are fortunate enough to survive such a trip to American borders you will be greeted as an asylum-seeker, not a refugee. Though you might see yourself as a refugee, the UN classifies you as an asylum-seeker, since your claims have not yet been evaluated for verification. While this evaluation and verification occurs it is possible that you might want to work to support yourself and your family. Such an act, however, is deemed illegal by the U.S. for at least 180 days after you have submitted your application for asylum and, in many cases, tends to be much longer than this.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch titled, “At Least Let Them Work” outlines the argument for enacting legislation that would allow asylum seekers to simultaneously file for permission to work with their asylum application. Complicating this state of limbo for asylum seekers is the restriction on receiving any type of federal benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Human Rights Watch claims the U.S. is the only developed country that initially denies employment and government benefits to potential refugees. As a result, many asylum-seekers are left with no choice but to beg, work illegally, or resort to crime as a means for survival.

A refugee family arrives at a U.S. airport. Photo via

A refugee family arrives at a U.S. airport. Photo via

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has accepted more refugees than any other nation since the end of WWII and has maintained an acceptance rate of nearly 50,000 refugees per year for the past ten years. Specific numbers though are determined by an annual refugee ceiling quota established by the President under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965. To be considered in this quota, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requires the following criteria to be met:

  • be located outside of the United States

  • be of special humanitarian concern to the United States

  • demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group

  • not be firmly resettled in another country

  • be admissible to the United States

Since religious persecution, ethnic strife, climate calamities, and civil wars all appear to be phenomena that are not going away, the need for greater cooperation and collaboration between asylee targeted countries has become more prominent. Yet any discussion over refugees is often muddied by political bickering over immigration. As countries such as the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Australia struggle to develop coherent policies on immigration the fate of improved asylum policies will most likely be held hostage to the same infighting.

UN Article 14 does not guarantee the right to asylum but the “right to seek and enjoy.” This raises important questions on how nations should uphold the dignity of the individual. Although there are serious implications for consideration with regard to work visas that are beyond the scope of this article, should there not be some method by which individuals can live healthy and productive lives? In denying one the right to work for six months, what message does this send to one attempting to resettle? Beyond the asylee, what is the cost to society?

These questions, like their solutions, are not simple. Since the U.S. is unable to accept every migrant that shows up at the border and mass rejections of entry run counter to the American narrative, thoughtful yet practical leadership is imperative. This does not mean that solutions should be limited to the federal government. Although refugee status is granted by sovereign states and the UNHRC, there are plenty of opportunities to assist those in need. Education or other development work for asylees should be available before they are standing in front an immigration officer.

Regardless of why or how an individual has come to seek refuge, every asylee deserves to be treated with dignity. By pressing through the work visa logistics, U.S. lawmakers should consider heeding the recommendation of Human Rights Watch. Empowering asylees to thrive in the U.S., even if under temporary circumstances is not about compliance to any law but conformity to the American spirit of hard work. After all, some of these asylees are citizens-to-be; shouldn’t they begin their American experience with an opportunity for the pursuit of happiness through their own labor?

-Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.