What Is Our Obligation To Asylum Seekers?

Help students understand international and US policy on asylum and its human consequences.

Under what circumstances should a country feel responsible to accept and protect those fleeing danger in their own countries?

The UNHRC (the United Nations Refugee Agency) calculates that there are 3.1 million asylum seekers worldwide. Among them are more than 7,000 men, women, and children, mainly from Central America, who are currently on the United States–Mexico border, and placed at the center of the latest US immigration-policy debate. Recent headlines have focused on the scale of the caravan of migrants from Central America, President Trump’s ban on asylum applications in certain circumstances, commitment of troops and use of tear gas at the border, and the unhealthy conditions in migrant shelters. Teachers can press pause on this barrage of news and provide critical context to help students understand international and US policy regarding asylum and its human consequences.

Many students have questions about the scope of nations’ obligations to asylum seekers and refugees and what rights are afforded these migrants. The following teaching ideas guide students to examine:

  • What is asylum, why might people seek it, and to what extent do countries have an obligation to provide asylum?
  • How are the United States’s evolving immigration policies impacting asylum seekers?
  • What measures are individuals taking to assist asylum seekers?


Note: for a comprehensive analysis of the contentious Trump administration actions on asylum, consult WBUR’s What Is Asylum? Who Is Eligible? Why Do Recent Changes Matter?. For an overview of the Central American caravan, refer to BBC’s Migrant Caravan: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?.

US policy has been changing at a clipped pace as the Trump administration responds to thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and seeking to come to the United States. Traditionally, migrants who claimed a “credible fear of persecution” in their home country could enter the United States without a visa and then apply for asylum, as established in the 1951 and 1967 Refugee Conventions. Congress enfolded these protections into US immigration law in the 1980s. Though the application process was often lengthy, asylum seekers could live and work in the United States, far from the dangers in their home countries, while they hoped to persuade a judge to grant them legal refugee status.

Citing security concerns, President Trump issued a proclamation in November 2018 banning asylum applications for any migrant illegally entering the country, as well as tightening the established standard for defining persecution. The ninth US circuit court of appeals struck down this measure, and the Trump administration will likely appeal.

In the meantime, border agents can only process 100 applicants per day. The current system is unable to accomodate the thousands of migrants, many of whom are families, awaiting an uncertain fate in makeshift shelters during inclement weather. Unclear of the ramifications, some migrants try to enter the country illegally and plan to ask for asylum when apprehended, while others seek placement on a waitlist for an interview with a border asylum officer. Because of a backlog in asylum requests, according to US officials, five to eight weeks may be the earliest date for these migrants to begin the process. If many choose to remain, will a humanitarian crisis develop?

Reflect: Why Are Migrants at the Border?

Begin a discussion with the following photograph and use the See, Think, Wonder strategy to analyze the image. Ask students,

Imagine what circumstances might lie behind and ahead of the people in this photo. How can you envision their past? How might they envision their future?

Frances, a woman migrating from Honduras with a caravan from Central America, takes refuge with her daughter in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, November 2018.

Explain that this photo shows migrants from Central America, waiting for an opportunity to apply for asylum in to the United States. Select passages or quotes from Newsela’s Migrants Make Long Journey in Hopes of a Better Life in the U.S. (a free account is required) to provide students context for the photo.

Journal Reflection: Allow students time to process their reactions to the photo and information about the migrants.

  • What might be motivating these migrants to leave their home countries?
  • What responsibilities do other countries have to help people who are fleeing danger?

Investigate: How Does the Asylum Process Work?

Show the video How Does the US Asylum Process Work? (6:37) from PBS’s Above the Noise. (Note: Jeff Sessions resigned as Attorney General on November 7, 2018. As of December 12, 2018 Matthew G. Whitaker is currently serving as acting Attorney General.)

Check for understanding by leading a discussion to unpack the historic international asylum process, and context and key parts of US altering policy:

  • How does international law define countries’ responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers?
  • How has the Trump administration sought to change the way the United States responds to people seeking asylum on the southern border? What do you think is motivating these changes?
  • What considerations do leaders have to balance when considering how many refugees a country can accept?
  • How are changes in US policy affecting asylum seekers?

Read former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s quote:

Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems—even all serious problems—that people face every day all over the world.1

Discuss: What is Jeff Sessions’ perspective on asylum? What do you think are the strengths and limitations of the asylum system?

What Can/Should Private Individuals and Groups Do?

While current asylum policies and their human consequences are legally and morally complex, many people are working to help meet the immediate needs of asylum seekers.

Encourage students to research from the following sources or to find additional ones and identify how individuals and groups have mobilized to assist refugees seeking asylum.


Extension: Examine the “Universe of Obligation”

Sociologist Helen Fein coined the term “universe of obligation” to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” The lesson Understanding Universe of Obligation explores how people and nations define their responsibility to others, and the factors that make those circles of responsibility expand and contract.

Note: For more lessons pertaining to refugees and asylum, view Family Separation at the U.S. Border, The Refugee Crisis and Human Responsibility, and Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis.


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