The Public Interest

Political asylum in theory and practice

Michael S. Teitelbaum

Summer 1984

NINETEEN hundred Haitians languish behind wire fences, go on hunger strikes, threaten mass suicide. Pakistani travel agents organize unusual package tours to West Germany, with only one-way air tickets but including legal advice upon arrival. Salvadorans cross the U.S.-Mexico border clandestinely, and then present themselves voluntarily to the U.S. Border Patrol for processing. These bizarre occurrences of the past several years have only one thing in common: The people involved are intent upon claiming asylum. Asylum, from the ancient Greek word for “freedom from seizure,” has usually been considered a rather abstruse provision of human rights laws. Yet in recent years it has entered forcefully into the real world of American domestic polities. It is a highly emotional political issue in the Federal Republic of Germany, and is beginning to appear on the agendas of several other major countries. The reasons for this recent metamorphosis warrant examination in their own right, and are also closely related to vigorous debates on foreign affairs and on immigration and refugee policies.

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