In the wake of the World Trade Center bombing, a barrage of attacks on the asylum system in the U.S. has appeared in the media. These stories, which characterized the asylum procedure as a "scam" for entering the U.S., tended to feature the views of government officials and anti-immigrant "experts" without balancing arguments from immigrants or their advocates. The reports allowed critics of immigration to use the bombing to scapegoat asylum seekers and fan the flames of xenophobia.
Francis X. Clines of the New York Times was one of the first to set the alarmist tone in a front-page story (3/11/93). Clines described "a new boomtide of political asylum seekers that is swamping the process of immigration." While Clines correctly stated that approximately 100,000 applications for political asylum were filed in 1992, he neglected to add that only 4,000 of those applications were approved. In fact, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) statistics show that asylum seekers make up only 10 percent of the immigrants entering the U.S. every year.
Some asylum seekers enter the U.S. without proper documents, a situation Clines deplores: "Under the law, most asylum petitioners must be allowed to enter the nation pending judgment of their appeal because the Government lacks the resources to detain them properly and by law can no longer simply turn back even the most dubious cases at the border." Any immigration lawyer could have informed Clines that "simply turning back" asylum seekers is forbidden not just under U.S. law, but under international refugee law. (Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the U.S. authorities from turning back Haitian refugees.)
Clines characterized this "lenient asylum situation" as part of a "worldwide Siren's call to foreigners." In a nod to fairness, Clines added that "others are in genuine flight from oppression," yet he offered no examples of such individuals. The article's sources included INS and State Department officials, members of Congress, and a vague assortment of "critics of the nation's overwhelmed immigration procedures," "critics in Congress and elsewhere" and unnamed "immigration lawyers." No refugee advocates or asylum seekers were quoted in the article.
Picking up where the New York Times article left off, CBS's 60 Minutes aired its own segment on asylum-seekers (3/14/93). Touring JFK Airport with an INS official, correspondent Leslie Stahl described asylum as "an almost foolproof formula to stay in the United States." She repeatedly expressed amazement that people "come in under false pretenses"--meaning without valid documents--"but can seek asylum anyway." No effort was made to explain that a person being persecuted by his or her government might not be in a position to ask that government for travel documents.
The one-sided segment failed to present any explanation of, or sympathy with, the plight of asylum seekers. The segment featured government officials from the INS and the State Department, but not a single refugee advocate, immigration attorney or individual who had received asylum. The supposed "authority" on immigration, appearing again and again to offer an apocalyptic view of immigration, was Dan Stein, executive director of the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)--not to be confused with the media watch group.
Internal Revenue Service records show that the Washington, D.C.-based group has since 1980 received hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the Pioneer Fund, an organization that was founded in 1937 by a millionaire who promoted sending American blacks back to Africa (London Independent, 3/4/90). The fund's charter promotes research into "problems of heredity and eugenics in the human race" and "problems of race betterment." The Pioneer Fund continues to fund racialist projects, such as a comparison of cranium size, gonad size and IQ distribution among blacks, whites and Asians by a researcher at the University of Western Ontario (Montreal Gazette, 8/1/92).
While it is perhaps inevitable that coverage of immigration and asylum issues would flare up following the World Trade Center bombing, the unbalanced sources, undocumented assertions and biased "experts" only serve to add more fuel to the flames of xenophobia.
Emily A. Whitfield is a freelance writer in New York City. She is an assistant to the refugee project at the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights in New York.