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Ideology, International Law, and the INS: The Development of American Asylum Politics 1948–Present


American asylum policy has developed gradually over many decades, which can be divided into five distinct eras. The relationships between the categories of refugee, asylum seeker, and undocumented immigrant have shifted frequently, and answers about which asylum seekers qualify for refugee status in the United States have been both politically constructed over time and contingent on the politics of the moment. Asylum seekers, therefore, have sometimes been assumed to be refugees, and at other times have been automatically lumped together with undocumented economic migrants. Asylum policy development has also been driven by a much larger conflict in American politics: the rise of legal institutions representing a commitment to international human rights, and the conservative backlash to that emergence. All of these forces have contributed to the current era, which is characterized by deterrence policies and litigation challenging their enforcement.

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  54. I discuss this critical juncture in much more detail elsewhere: Rebecca Hamlin, “Illegal Refugees: Competing Policy Ideas and the Rise of the Regime of Deterrence in American Asylum Politics” Refugee Survey Quarterly, 31 (2012): 3353.

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  63. The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which reviews the decisions of Asylum Officers, is still housed within the Department of Justice, which remains separate from the Department of Homeland Security.

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  66. Ibid., 133.

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Thanks to Ming Hsu Chen, Cybelle Fox, Anna O. Law, Ron Schmidt, Rogers Smith, Dan Tichenor, Steve Wasby, and Cyrus “Ernie” Zirakzadeh for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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Hamlin, R. Ideology, International Law, and the INS: The Development of American Asylum Politics 1948–Present. Polity 47, 320–336 (2015).

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  • Reagan presidency
  • legal mobilization
  • undocumented immigration
  • American asylum policy
  • refugee policy
  • international human rights