I recently started walking through the process of applying for asylum with a new friend. I can’t say much about her situation, but her public profession of faith in Christ would endanger her life in her home country. Based on what I know about her situation, I was highly optimistic about her chance of being granted asylum.
After educating myself a bit more, I’m no longer so confident. While I knew that restrictions have made it harder to immigrate to this country by crossing the border illegally from Mexico or applying for a work visa from China, I didn’t realize that new rules also affect those who flee persecution for their religious faith.
To better understand how to help persecuted Christians overseas, I reached out to Matthew Soerens of World Relief.
Where in the world is it most dangerous to be a Christian right now?
Open Doors USA breaks down their World Watch List in terms of “extreme,” “very high,” and “high” persecution. The 11 countries where they find Christians face extreme persecution are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, India, and Syria.
If a person from one of those countries makes it to the United States, what has the asylum process looked like historically?
It depends in part on how they arrive. Many arrive in the United States on a temporary visa, such as a tourist or student visa, and then affirmatively file a request for asylum with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker, so a well-prepared asylum application will often be several inches thick. Proving the sincerity of one’s faith and the credibility of the threat is not always easy—rarely do those threatening persecution outline in a notarized statement the specific reasons they intended to kill someone.
The effects of this regulation for persecuted Christians could be dramatic.
If an individual simply shows up at the border, which is usually the only option for those too poor to be granted a tourist visa to the United States, the individual can request asylum in front of an immigration judge, who will usually order them deported if they do not win their case. So the stakes are high.
The key factor in whether or not an asylum seeker will win their case is if they have legal representation. Unlike in a criminal case, asylum seekers are not assigned a public defender. Many are unrepresented, and only 10 percent to 15 percent of these individuals win their cases. But most asylum seekers who do have legal representation in immigration court win their cases—or did, until the past few years. This year, the approval rate has fallen to less than 30 percent.
How have recent policies changed that process?
While Congress hasn’t changed the law that governs asylum eligibility—it’s still the same Refugee Act of 1980—the Trump administration has profoundly reinterpreted how the law is to be applied. Some of these policies, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, only affect those who arrived at the U.S.–Mexico border.
The administration has recently proposed (though not yet finalized) new asylum regulations that apply to all asylum seekers, not just those who arrive at the U.S.–Mexico border. The proposed regulations redefine key terms such as “torture,” “well-founded fear,” “persecution,” “political opinion,” and “social group” in more restrictive ways. One of the most radical changes would be to refuse asylum to anyone who passes through other countries en route to the United States, regardless of the merits of their case.
One of the most radical changes would be to refuse asylum to anyone who passes through other countries en route to the United States, regardless of the merits of their case.
It’s in part because we’re very concerned about the effects of this regulation that World Relief joined with Open Doors USA recently to publish a report, Closed Doors, outlining just how dramatic the effects of this regulation could be for persecuted Christians.
Why does transiting through another country on the way to the United States endanger an asylum claim? What are the intended and unintended consequence of this new policy?
The rationale is to encourage people to seek asylum in the first country they arrive in rather than aiming for the United States. That may seem reasonable, but sometimes the first country someone reaches may also be unsafe for a persecuted Christian. In the Closed Doors report, we profile a woman who asked to be called Mary. She first left her home country of Eritrea—number six on the Open Doors World Watch List of persecuted Christians—and made it to Sudan. She tried rebuilding her life in Sudan, but was soon targeted for her faith there as well. She ultimately traveled through 11 different countries before she reached the United States and, after five months in a detention center, was granted asylum. Under the new regulations, she would be ineligible.
Literally having layovers in multiple countries en route to the United States might render someone ineligible for asylum if these regulations go through.
What makes asylum-seekers vulnerable to exploitation?
Even when they have not been charged with any criminal offense, asylum seekers are frequently held in jail-like detention centers until their court hearings are completed, which of course makes them vulnerable at any time. COVID-19 has created new vulnerabilities, because it’s nearly impossible to practice social distancing in such a setting.
For those not in detention, the greatest vulnerabilities are economic. . . . It could become nearly impossible for persecuted Christians and others to comply with the various rules.
For those not in detention, the greatest vulnerabilities are economic. Asylum seekers are generally not authorized to work while their cases are pending. But they’re also ineligible for any sort of public assistance. Under current regulations, asylum seekers are generally eligible to request employment authorization six months after their application is received. But a new proposed regulation would push that to a year, while other new proposed regulations would render an asylum seeker ineligible (regardless of the credibility of their fear of persecution) if they have failed to file taxes. It makes it nearly impossible for persecuted Christians and others to comply with the various rules.
What can American Christians do to make this country a more welcoming place for refugees fleeing religious persecution?
Christians and others who value religious freedom can advocate with their elected officials to respect and strengthen our laws—including our asylum system and our refugee resettlement process—that offer protection to those who have fled persecution in countries that do not respect religious freedom. They can also work with ministries like World Relief to offer tangible help—including legal services, food, housing assistance, English-language instruction, and other basic needs. They can partner with organizations like Open Doors to advocate and care for those persecuted abroad, reducing the need for asylum. And pastors and leaders can help disciple others to think in distinctly biblical ways about the realities of refugees and immigration, recognizing that when we talk about refugees, we’re often talking about brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we welcome one of the least of them, we welcome Jesus himself (Matt. 25:40).