While the American media has been talking about statues and letters, the Trump administration has been quietly gutting asylum protections for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have recently proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the process facing asylum seekers—changes they have disguised as merely regulatory. Some of the most pernicious suggestions include a permanent bar on asylum for anyone who has filed a late tax return; an attempt to make it harder for applicants to prove state persecution by reclassifying torturers as “rogue officials,” rather than agents of the state; and a new expectation that each refugee apply for and await asylum in the first country he or she enters on the way to the United States.
But as a volunteer at a pro-bono immigration clinic, where I work with asylum seekers, I was particularly struck by one change that seems, at first glance, wildly out of place in a document that is decidedly unwoke: “The Departments propose to make clear,” the new rule states, “that pernicious cultural stereotypes have no place in the adjudication of applications for asylum ... Accordingly, the proposed rule would bar consideration of evidence promoting cultural stereotypes of countries or individuals.”
The President has infamously derided Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists and banned citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. So, why is his administration suddenly desperate to stop people from stereotyping other cultures?
The answer has to do with the role that “evidence promoting cultural stereotypes” might play when adjudicating an application for asylum. For example, a large number of Russian citizens are openly anti-gay. The law only goes so far in criminalizing homosexuality but significant numbers of gays and lesbians have been blackmailed or physically attacked. How, under these circumstances, could a refugee from Russia convince an asylum adjudicator that he or she was in genuine danger without saying anything that would “promote cultural stereotypes” by implying that a significant number of Russians are homophobic?
The most talented and experienced lawyers might be able to walk this tightrope. But the vast majority of asylum seekers don’t have access to formal representation and are supposed to make their cases unassisted. The likelihood that an asylum seeker might present his case in an imperfectly sensitive manner while pleading for his life is rather high—if he even knew that he wasn’t allowed to say anything that could be construed as promoting cultural stereotypes in the first place.
The cynicism of this ploy is hard to beat. Though the proposed regulation co-opts the language of the social justice left, its effect is to facilitate the delivery of apostates, dissidents, sexual minorities, and women back into the hands of the people who are trying to kill them.
Make no mistake: The fault lies squarely with the Trump administration. Its attempt to deport the most vulnerable people from illiberal societies in the name of combating “pernicious stereotypes” is a perfect encapsulation of its trolling approach to governance. This is the dynamic Jean-Paul Sartre describes in Anti-Semite and Jew: “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves.”
It is also, however, an important reminder of how easily supposedly progressive tropes can be appropriated by the enemies of a free society. Even when international human rights organizations criticize the most invasive forms of female genital cutting, some governments—and their defenders in the West—dismiss such concerns as cultural imperialism. And when the pandemic first hit, Chinese officials accused the foreign journalists who were raising the alarm of being racially inflammatory. Now, the Trump administration is invoking similar concerns about hurtful language in order to send asylum seekers to their probable deaths.
To be sure, there are many pernicious stereotypes—subconscious awareness of which can predispose people to believe certain things on little evidence. Even when the facts warrant a negative appraisal of some national or cultural practice, that is no excuse for lazy generalizations about groups. But that is precisely why there is only one coherent alternative to the moral and factual relativism that populists and autocrats love to appropriate from misguided activists: Consistently defend the values of a free society. And consistently describe the world as it actually is.