Are asylum rights misguided?

Per capita income in Eritrea is about $600 a year (estimates vary however), and in El Salvador about $8000 a year, PPP-adjusted.  We hear a lot about the horrible violence in El Salvador, and indeed I have been to the country only twice, and yet saw a murdered dead body simply lying alongside the highway.  Here are various anecdotes about the problem, noting that not all of them involve death.  Nonetheless keep in mind that life expectancy in El Salvador is a bit over 73 years.  Life expectancy in Eritrea is about 64.

Yet a person from El Salvador can make his or her way to the U.S. border and plead for asylum rights, often with some justification I might add.  (More generally, the number of asylum seekers from Latin America is rising rapidly.)  It is much harder for an Eritrean to do the same, most of all because there is no direct land route and furthermore the paucity of resources in Eritrea makes almost any kind of action harder to pull off.  Eritreans do however request and sometimes receive asylum rights through the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea itself.

So asylum rights favor El Salvadorans relative to Eritreans, at least once people realize there is an incentive to try to migrate north.  Does that make sense?  In general, Latin American countries are wealthier and healthier than most of the world’s other poorer countries, though they are on average more violent.

To be clear, I do not wish to revoke or limit asylum rights today.  That would lead to less humane outcomes with no offsetting advantage.  But say we were designing an ideal immigration policy from scratch.  Would you not want to pare back asylum rights in return for allowing more legal immigration from very needy countries?

Keep in mind that a stronger chance of asylum rights for Latin Americans, or those in the Caribbean, means more dangerous journeys to get here, and thus a greater exhaustion of “migration rents” through the very process of trying.  It would be possible to offer greater legal migration rights to more Eritreans, if only through a lottery (though I suspect a better method yet can be found), without inducing comparably risky or costly behavior.

Asylum rights still could be kept for situations of special humanitarian, cultural, or political importance, such as the Holocaust, Soviet Jews, or the current situation in Syria.  But ask yourself a simple question: when the genocide was going on in Rwanda, how many Rwandans did the U.S. grant asylum rights to?  Does that not indicate something is broken about the current system?

Consider these figures:

Immigration court records show that more asylum cases were denied over the previous five years than have been granted. In fiscal year 2016, 62 percent of asylum cases were denied, compared with 44.5 percent five years earlier. Among Mexicans and Central Americans, the approval rate is substantially lower.

You might think that is a sign of the system working along the ex post dimension, but it also indicates there is too much ex ante “regulatory arbitrage” across different immigration categories.

It seems that hundreds of millions of people in today’s world are worthy of asylum, given the criteria as written.  Yet during the Obama years a typical intake was about 60,000 asylum seekers yearly, which suggests an extreme degree of moral arbitrariness.  Is there not a better way to write asylum law to target…whatever you think is most worth of being targeted?  Admittedly opinions on the proper standard will differ.

Or consider this:

Every month, thousands of deportees from the United States and hundreds of asylum-seekers from around the world arrive in Tijuana. Many never leave….this flood tide of outsiders is pushing Tijuana toward a humanitarian crisis.

The best case for a broad application of asylum rights is simply that it gives the authorities more discretion to accept a larger number of very worthy cases.  For instance, teenager Martina Navratilova received asylum in the United States, and for the better, even though she was not facing death or torture back home in Czechoslovakia.  Keep in mind, though, that (for the moment) we are designing an ideal immigration system from scratch.  Cases such as Navratilova’s suggest that ordinary immigration policy ought to be more geared to taking in especially talented individuals, with or without an asylum case.

You should note, by the way, that Australia has relatively tough asylum rights, but takes in a large number of legal immigrants.  The country also goes to great lengths to stop people from showing up at the border in boats and claiming asylum.  So it seems there is at least one case where this is a sustainable posture.

In closing, I would note that asylum rights seem to be creating major political problems for Europe.  Partially for non-rational reasons, many voters view asylum-linked immigration as “more out of control” than other kinds of migration.  And the EU arguably has poorly designed institutions for handling asylum, and doling out relative responsibilities to member nations.  Plus Europe is very close to the Middle East and Africa.  Reforming the treatment of asylum in Europe might well improve the functioning of democracy there and actually put immigration on a more stable path.


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