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Harvard Professors Decry Trump Administration Approach to Asylum Policy, Migrant Caravans

Wasserstein Hall houses a student center at the Law School.
Wasserstein Hall houses a student center at the Law School. By Fiona E Lewis
By Ema R. Schumer and Ruoqi Zhang, Contributing Writers

Harvard professors decried the Trump administration's asylum policies to a packed room at the Law School Thursday, condemning in particular the administration's treatment of caravans of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States — the latest flashpoint in the country's immigration debate.

In the hour-long panel, “The Migrant Caravan and the Law and Politics of the Border,” Anthropology Professor Ieva Jusionyte and Law School Assistant Clinical Professor Sabrineh Ardalan spoke about the legal, social, and political issues surrounding migrant caravans. Three Law School student organizations — Harvard Immigration Project, Mexican Law Students Association, and La Alianza — hosted the event.

Ardalan began her remarks with an explanation of asylum laws and their historical origins in the aftermath of World War II.

Ardalan specifically criticized the Trump administration’s effort to prohibit migrants from seeking asylum if they do not enter through a “port of entry.” She referred to this policy as the federal government’s latest effort to “roll back asylum protections” for Central American refugees fleeing violence.

“For purposes of seeking asylum, it doesn’t matter where a person enters the U.S.,” she said after she read excerpts from U.S. asylum law, which empowers migrants to apply for asylum regardless of their immigration status or where they enter the country. “The executive branch can’t just rewrite what Congress did.”

In her remarks, Ardalan also rejected the perception that migrants somehow manipulate the asylum system to gain entry into the United States.

“This isn’t a loophole by any means,” she said. “In fact, it’s really hard to gain access to protections that people have a right to.”

Both professors focused on portrayals of migrants and asylum seekers in political discourses and public media. They specifically described Trump’s portrayal of migrant caravans as an “invasion” as an attempt to dehumanize immigrants. One large caravan from Central America originally grabbed Trump's attention in the spring. That group has since splintered, and several other caravans have followed in its wake.

“[They are] individuals with stories who have really compelling reasons for making a harrowing journey risking their lives and the lives of their small children to save their lives,” Ardalan said.

“By eliminating that real life context of why people are leaving and dehumanizing them, it’s easier to gain public opinion to push through these draconian policies,” she added.

Jusionyte said the Trump administration is not the only party using charged language around immigration, however. She referenced metaphors members of the media and of the public use when discussing immigration.

“People who have the right to ask for asylum and are running for their lives are portrayed as part of this big ‘wave’ that will ‘overflow’ the United States and destroy all of the border,” she said. “Perhaps the president’s rhetoric is a little harsher but it’s in all of how we talk about migration.”

Both professors underscored students’ capacity to change the narrative around immigration.

Ardalan emphasized the power of storytelling. She suggested reframing immigration debates “to connect people to narratives with shared values — values that we all have in common — that we can come back to to try to unify people around messages as opposed to dividing people.”

Harvard Law student and La Alianza member Perla F. “Fabi” Alvelais, who attended the event, reiterated the speakers' statements. She said the national discourse surrounding immigrants from Central America is “upsetting” and “completely wrong.”

“It’s very upsetting to see how much that rhetoric has stuck with a lot of people and how a lot of people have accepted that,” Alvelais said. “So I think our job in La Alianza as law students is to pushback and show how talented and committed and great our community is.”

Jusionyte applauded students’ passion for the issue. Some Law students have worked with immigration clinics and humanitarian organizations at the border.

“Even for people who are not necessarily studying law,” she added, “there are such ways as to just donate to [American Civil Liberties Union] or these shelters in Mexico or on the U.S. border.”

Correction: Dec. 1, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Sabrineh Ardalan is a Harvard Law School clinical professor. In fact, she is a Law School assistant clinical professor.

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