When Professors Steven Yale-Loehr and Jens Ohlin stepped to their respective podiums for a friendly “debate” over the immigration crisis on March 7, they were greeted by an overflow crowd of students. Organized by the Briggs Society of International Law and Cornell Advocates for Human Rights, the “Debate on the Immigration Crisis: Human Rights vs. States Rights” featured two leading voices on the issue.
Yale-Loehr, one of the nation’s preeminent authorities on U.S. immigration and asylum law and a clinical professor for the Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic, served as the primary voice for refugee rights. Ohlin, who is associate dean for academic affairs, an expert on international law, and author of recently published The Assault on International Law, spoke primarily for states’ rights.
As the discussions began it was quickly made clear to the students that international and refugee law are not actually at odds with one another. This is, Ohlin clarified, not a debate over divergent law, but rather, a discussion about responsibility and the appropriate way to distribute that responsibility. The discussion on responsibility, up to now, has largely been a game of pointing fingers: Greece is physically closest; France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have the economic capacity; the United States helped shape the events that set into motion the current crisis. International lawyers, Ohlin said, are finally beginning to have productive dialogue on distributing responsibility.
Yale-Loehr stressed that “refugee” is an often-misused legal term that is highly dependent on the reason why a specific person is fleeing. For example, a person who leaves his or her country solely due to a lack of economic opportunities would not be considered a refugee. A person fleeing due to lack of safety or systemic violence, however, would likely qualify as a refugee. Both speakers agreed that while people have the right to leave their state, there is no law that requires a state to accept them. A state’s only obligation, per the U.N. Convention of 1951, is that once a refugee is on a state’s territory, the state cannot send the refugee back to the place from which he or she fled.
The speakers also shared common ground on the impossibility of open borders. Open borders would irrevocably impede upon states’ sovereignty and territoriality. The flip side of this, they said, is that the right to movement of many immigrants is being curtailed by states’ rights to control over their borders. Of particular interest to the students in attendance were some states’ recent decisions to select—often based on religious affiliation—which refugees they would accept. Ohlin clarified with dismay that, while it may not follow the spirit of equality, it was legally allowable. A state has the inherent authority to control who it allows within its borders. If, for whatever reason, the state deems a particular group to be at odds with its political agenda and/or state, it has the capacity to deny them access.
As an introduction to the event, law students who visited Jordan last year made a presentation about the Collateral Repair Project—a U.S. NGO working with refugees in Amman, Jordan—and discussed how to become involved.