What Is Our Obligation To Asylum Seekers?

Last Updated: October 7, 2021

In the summer and fall of 2021, migration across the US-Mexico border increased after a period of very low migration during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent years, many migrants crossing the US-Mexico border have petitioned for asylum in the United States, asking for protection from persecution in their home countries. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, first the Trump administration and then the Biden administration have used a provision known as Title 42—which allows federal health officials to prevent people from entering the country during a public health emergency—to immediately expel a large proportion of migrants attempting to enter the United States. In September 2021, thousands of migrants were deported to Haiti under this policy. Title 42 has sparked controversy because it allows the US government to deport migrants before they have a chance to petition for asylum. 

This Teaching Idea helps students understand how the asylum process works in the United States and also consider the question: Who has an obligation to help asylum seekers?

Context: Why Do People Migrate?

Exploring the reasons why people migrate can help students better understand the ethical and political reactions to migrants. You can use our Teaching Idea Why Do People Migrate? to learn more about both the immediate and underlying causes of migration.

  1. How Does the Asylum Process Work?

    The asylum process in the United States is a complex system. Gaining a greater understanding of how it works can help students better grasp current events around immigration. If your students would benefit from getting clarification on migration-related terms, such as the term asylum seekers, begin by sharing our Migration Explainer.

    Then, use the Parts, Purposes, and Complexities1 thinking routine to help your students explore how the asylum process in the United States works.

    Introduce the thinking routine by telling students that they will be brainstorming answers to the following questions:

    • What are the parts (people or components) that make up the asylum system?
    • What are its purposes? What are the purposes of each of its parts?
    • What are its complexities? How is the asylum system complicated? What are the relationships between the parts and the purposes of the system?

    You can review a selection of the following resources with your students to provide them with the background information they need to begin answering the questions above.

    Place students into groups to brainstorm answers to the Parts, Purposes, and Complexity questions. Students may find it helpful to start with the question about parts and then bring in the second two questions. They may also find it helpful to answer the questions by drawing diagrams or creating other visuals.

    Finally, debrief as a class about what students learned through this activity by asking them:

    • What did you learn through your exploration of the asylum system?
    • What questions do you still have about asylum?
  2. Where Do Asylum Seekers Fit in the “Universe of Obligation”?

    Note: This activity uses the concept of “universe of obligation,” which is a helpful concept in analyzing the choices both governments and individuals make about what groups of people they are most likely to protect. Sociologist Helen Fein coined this term 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.”2 If you or your students are not familiar with the concept, we recommend taking the time to introduce it with the lesson Understanding the Universe of Obligation, before continuing with this activity.

    Our global system assumes that every person will fit into their own nation’s universe of obligation. However, that is not always the case. Those individuals or groups who fall outside a nation’s universe of obligation become vulnerable—not only to being deprived of the rights, privileges, and economic benefits afforded to citizens—but also to expulsion, physical harm, and, in the most extreme cases, genocide (as Helen Fein warned when she articulated this concept). Asylum seekers are claiming that their own countries have withdrawn protection from them, which raises the question, what should happen to people who are excluded from their own country’s universe of obligation?

    Ask your students:

    Who should be obligated to help asylum seekers if they have been excluded from their own country’s universe of obligation?

    Before answering this question, students can discuss the following questions to generate ideas about what is possible:

    • What could my community do to help asylum seekers?
    • What could my country do to help asylum seekers?
    • What could the global community (other countries or international organizations) do to help asylum seekers?

Additional Resources:


  • 1 : Adapted from Harvard University’s Project Zero resource Exploring Complexity.
  • 2 : Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.

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