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Immigration Misconceptions

Professor Uzoamaka Emeka Nzelibe explains asylum law, the refugee definition, and why there’s so much misinformation about immigration.

By Uzoamaka Emeka Nzelibe
March 8, 2019
Online Exclusives
5 Responses

The number of people crossing the border is at an all-time high, and the U.S. needs these policies to curb the flow of migrants crossing the southern border. 

When you look at the news, you might be inclined to believe that border crossings are at an all-time high in the United States, and this crisis is a crisis of numbers. Immigration along the southwest border is down. You can use the number of apprehensions along the U.S. border to gauge how many people are crossing the border into the United States. In fiscal year 2000, the number of apprehensions along the southwest border reached a high of about 1.6 million. In fiscal year 2017 the numbers were around 300,000. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “In FY17, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recorded the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record, as measured by apprehensions along the border and inadmissible encounters at the U.S. ports of entry.”

What has changed? The demographics of border crossers. More Central Americans are coming. The vast majority (91 percent) of persons apprehended in 2008 at U.S. borders were Mexican nationals. About 7 percent were from the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala). By comparison, in 2014 nearly 50 percent of persons apprehended at U.S. borders were from the Northern Triangle countries. People coming from Central America are more likely to seek asylum, which affects how they move through the U.S. immigration system. 

Asylum is meant for people from war-torn countries, like Syria.

Yes, people fleeing wars may qualify for asylum. But you don’t need a war. Plus, coming from a war-torn country doesn’t guarantee that you will get asylum. Asylum is meant for people who have been harmed or fear harm because of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion or because they have traits that are unchangeable, like race or a past experience, or fundamental to their identities, like religion or political opinion. The bad actor can be a state or persons or groups the state cannot or will not control. The Northern Triangle countries represent some of the most violent countries in the world. The governments in these countries, which are poor and often corrupt, are unable to prevent much of the violence carried out by gangs and other armed groups operating in urban and, increasingly, rural areas or are themselves involved in harming youth. For some of the children I represent, living in a gang-controlled neighborhood is like living in a war-torn country.

The Central Americans at the border are migrants, not refugees.

I would argue that my Central American clients (all of whom are fleeing some form of violence) are refugees. Gangs, vigilantes and government agents target young people for violence because of their age and residence in areas that are outside of the government’s control — traits they cannot change to avoid harm. Often, their only option is to flee.  

People should follow the rules and apply for asylum the right way.

You can apply for asylum regardless of how you entered the country. Also, our laws and policies create disincentives to lawful entry.

People are trying to circumvent our immigration laws by crossing the border and should wait in line like everybody else.

The line is a myth. U.S. immigration laws are outdated and provide few pathways to legal status, especially for lower-skilled workers, a category of workers our economy needs. Moreover, people coming to our borders are seeking refuge under our humanitarian asylum laws. To have them wait in line outside the U.S. (in their home countries or Mexico) would expose them to many of the dangers from which they are fleeing.

People are coming to the United States to give birth to U.S. citizen "anchor babies," so they can get legal status.

A child can usually derive immigration status from a parent. It is very difficult, however, for an undocumented parent of a U.S. citizen child (someone younger than 18) to get immigration status through her child. A U.S. citizen who is 21 or older can apply for a parent to obtain a green card. If the parent has lived in the United States without immigration status, the path to lawful immigration status is complicated and uncertain.

Read the profile on Northwestern law professor Uzoamaka Emeka Nzelibe, “A Beacon of Hope for Asylum Seekers.” 

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Reader Responses

  • The article is at odds with actual data. For example: “People are coming to the United States to give birth to U.S. citizen ‘anchor babies,’ so they can get legal status.”
    It may be the case that parents are not pursuing legal status through such activity but that does not mean that such activity is not taking place to benefit their children.

    Gregg Barrett ’16 MS, Johannesburg, South Africa, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Facts about the border people are welcome in light of today's politics.

    Gini Tingley Duval ’61 Fargo, N.D., via Northwestern Magazine

  • Allowing 70,000 to 80,000 people a month to enter our county unvetted is a recipe for disaster. While perhaps none of your clients are drug dealers, gang members or murderers, this cannot be said of all those who enter illegally. As a second generation American of legal immigrants, I am beyond weary of the "we must accept all of these people with open arms." I ask you, have you or would you open the door to your home to one, five, 10 or more immigrants of whom you have no knowledge or their backgrounds? I have unending sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and been victims of illegal immigrants. Sadly I believe you and your compatriots believe the ends, whatever they may be, justify the means.

    Mark Houston

  • Professor Nzelibe, thanks you so much for providing this clarifying information and for all of the work that do on behalf of immigrants and refugees.

    Art Chwalek ’81 Asheville, N.C., via Northwestern Magazine

  • It's been pretty well documented that the overwhelming number of illegals are here for economic reasons. By calling it a myth, the author loses much credibility. It should also be noted that the overwhelming number of asylum requests are turned down and those requesting "asylum" have been prepped as to what to say in order to gain entry and a court date, for which most don't even show up.

    Phillip Nagle ’65 Wheeling, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine

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