Immigration: Digging Into the Safe Third Country Policy – Greg Hand

As a volunteer for the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC) at the beginning of 2020, I have had the opportunity to observe immigration and removal procedures before Immigration Courts. One policy that I have seen troubles me greatly—the adoption of the safe third country policy. This recently adopted policy undermines U.S. credibility on human rights and freedom, tells refugees and those seeking asylum that the United States does not want them, and does not reflect values rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

The safe third country policy has been used to harm those who face persecution in two situations that I have seen as a volunteer.

The first case involved an asylum seeker crossing the Mexican border. The United States changed its policy in admitting asylum seekers when it implemented the policy of metering immigrants applying for asylum at the Mexican border. The Custom and Border Patrol stationed guards at border crossings. Asylum-seekers, who presented themselves at the border, were put on a waitlist and sent back to Mexico to wait for their turn to request asylum. These lists became very long in 2019.

In May or June 2019, an English-speaking Cameroon migrant came to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. He was placed on a waiting list and returned to Mexico. His claim was that he had been imprisoned and tortured because officials of the Cameroon government believed he was part of separatist movement against the French-speaking majority. Physical evidence corroborated his claim of torture.

Before his wait period ended, the administration put out a new policy that “specifically applied to the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that ‘an alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border after failing to apply for protection in a third country outside the alien’s country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which the alien transited en route to the United States is ineligible for asylum.’” NPR, Trump Administration Implementing ‘Safe 3rd Country Rule’ on Immigrants, July 15, 2019.

This interim rule announced in July 2019 purports to shut the door to his request and claim, even though he had come to the border to request asylum before the change in policy. Since the policy of the United States was to turn him away, notwithstanding the merits of his asylum claim, he crossed the border irregularly and was detained. The courts should be the final arbiter of this rule specifically intended to deny him and others like him his right to request asylum.

Another situation that I have seen involves removal proceedings of Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs).

It does not require the most serious crimes to attract the attention of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and place LPRs in jeopardy of removal from the United States. The Attorney General of the United States has severely discouraged and even prohibited prosecutorial discretion. A second injustice can occur after an LPR prevails in immigration court. U.S. policy is to still seek removal to another country with which the migrant may have no contacts. The only condition for removal is that the third country is considered “safe” and agrees not to persecute the immigrant.

In a recent case, an Immigration Judge found that the immigrant would likely face torture, imprisonment, and even death at the hands of government authorities if he were removed to his native country. The judge told the immigrant, who had been imprisoned for approximately four months, that he would be released that day. After the judge’s ruling and statement in court, ICE-ERO (Enforcement Removal Operations) announced that they intended to take the full 90 days of the removal period to maybe see if there is a third country that will take him.

The policy of ICE-ERO will dictate one of two outcomes in this case. He will stay in prison for another three months during a pandemic before his release, or he will be removed to a country with which he has no connections and separated from his family.

I was exposed to the writings of C.S. Lewis during law school. I felt that Lewis’ advice was relevant to my service as a government lawyer over the course of 37 years: “When people say, ‘The Church ought to give us a lead,’ what they should be saying is that Christian economists and statesmen should be putting all their efforts in politics and economics directed to ‘”Do as you would be done by into action.”’ Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, New York City, Touchstone, 1996, Print.

When the prophet Malachi posed the question, “Where is the God of justice?” (2:17), he replied with the promise of a messenger and a judgment against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice. (3:1-5)

The safe third country policy is a policy in which our government has abandoned the values of welcoming the oppressed, providing justice for the foreigners among us, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Help us to be instruments of change.

Greg Hand, a member of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, served as an Army judge advocate for four years, as a local prosecutor for 4 1/2 years, and as an Army civilian attorney for nearly 29 years. Now retired, he volunteers as an attorney with PIRCLAW.


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