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The History Of Asylum Laws


In 1956, tens of thousands of refugees began fleeing to the United States after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: President Eisenhower welcomes a group of nine Hungarian refugees to a new life in America. Less than a week after Russian tyranny in their homeland, they expressed their thanks with smiles for receiving refuge in the U.S.

KING: As you heard there, Cold War attitudes made it relatively simple for those people fleeing communism to enter the U.S. But even for people welcomed into the country, the system of asylum can be confusing. Commentator Cokie Roberts has the answers to some of your questions about asylum rules. I talked to her earlier this week.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel. Nice to talk to you.

KING: You too. All right. Here's our first question.

MARLENA SAUCEDA: Hi, this is Marlena Sauceda from Tempe, Ariz. Have the same policies been applied differently to asylum seekers from different countries or parts of the world, or have different policies been created to address specific groups of asylum seekers over the years?

ROBERTS: Well, Marlena's talking about asylum seekers. But there's a lot of confusion about refugees versus asylum seekers. Refugees ask for their status from when they're outside the country, and they're supposed to be fleeing armed conflict or persecution. They're protected by international law. Asylum seekers ask for protection once they're here. The saying goes all refugees are asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers are refugees. You got it, Noel?

KING: Yeah, that's an important distinction in this day and age.

ROBERTS: Yes. Yes.

KING: What about the rest of her questions - about whether specific policies have been created for specific groups of people?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. President Truman pushed the first refugee law in 1948 to let hundreds of thousands of Europeans in after the war. That was, of course, after the Roosevelt administration had turned away fleeing Jews during the war. And over the years, there have been tweaks to accommodate new groups - first, those fleeing the USSR and China and Korea, then Cuba. And now, of course, President Trump's gotten the go ahead from the Supreme Court to change the law again to exclude people from certain countries.

KING: Our next question has to do with an issue that we have heard a lot about lately.

SCOTT ANDERSON: This is Scott Anderson in Denver, Iowa. I'd like to know, what has been U.S. policy, past and present, regarding asylum requests if made during illegal border crossing rather than official port of entry?

ROBERTS: The policy's really the same. Migrants ask for asylum. They're referred to the Justice Department. Most are kept in detention, where another government agency takes over. The number of government agencies involved is absolutely mind-boggling, Noel. And then they're given a court date to appear before an immigration judge, who determines whether they receive asylum or not.

KING: All right. Kathy Deganis wants to know about what happens next. She asks, how long does the process take? And from what countries are immigrants most likely to flee, and why are they fleeing?

ROBERTS: Well, right now there's a backlog of about 700,000 cases in immigration courts.

KING: Wow.

ROBERTS: It's the reason the Justice Department wants more judges and why the president wants to just forget this process and send everyone back. But the Constitution says every person in the U.S. is entitled to due process. And the Supreme Court says that includes undocumented persons. But not all protections given U.S. citizens apply. For instance, once they're in court, there's no right to a government-appointed lawyer, even for children. Now, people are fleeing from some countries, just coming from other countries for various reasons. You might be surprised to know the countries most immigrants are coming from are India and China.

KING: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIOSENCE'S "OUT OF REACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.