Refugees are a flash point for political divisions in the United States and abroad. The enormous personal, moral, and legal challenges posed by the displacement of refugees around the world reveal the dire inadequacies of our current policies toward refugee protection. Children running to border agents at the U.S. southern border are treated as a security threat to be deterred, instead of a vulnerable population needing some level of protection. The numbers of people seeking safety in the United States, while not objectively high, places further strain on an already under-resourced and heavily burdened immigration system, which at the end of the day, offers only partial hope to some of those seeking safety. Simply put, our current laws are simply not designed to offer meaningful protection that fits the contours of new waves of forced migration.
This Article breaks open a debate that has been caught between the binaries of protection versus deterrence, and instead asks what framework could effectively serve multiple goals, both short-term protection and long-term deterrence and public safety. To do this, it questions our exclusive focus on the protection afforded by the Refugee Convention, and considers what rights to protection might be owed to "unconventional refugees."
The Refugee Convention's principle of non-refoulement (or non-return to the persecuting country) imposes significant duties on receiving nations like the United States, while its implementation requires intensive individualized determinations that create great demands on an overstretched immigration system. Its high value comes from the path it creates for refugees to ultimately access U.S. citizenship, and the value necessarily entails a process of great detail and depth. This Article considers whether a complementary form of protection for unconventional refugees is appropriate--protection that is perhaps less valuable, but also less complex to administer and easier for the refugees to access.
The Article examines precedents in U.S. immigration laws for such a reimagined form of protection, and examines a series of justifications, both philosophical and pragmatic, for such protection. The world is undeniably experiencing a moment where even the Refugee Convention meets considerable political opposition, so the project of developing a new framework is a long-term one, but it is a project that merits thoughtful consideration starting now. The principle of non-refoulement was once novel, and now constitutes a powerful principle of international law. A new principle for protecting unconventional refugees may also be possible, but only if we begin the task of imagining it.