Seeking Refuge: Central American Asylum Seekers in the U.S.

In her Fall 2019 ExCollege course, immigration attorney Maggie Morgan explores why there’s a sudden increase in asylum seekers and why asylum status can be so difficult to obtain in the United States.
Immigration posters at rally.

Gang activity. Domestic violence. Persecution at the hands of the government. Thousands come to the United States to escape dangerous circumstances where there is scant hope of improvement. The Department of Homeland Security reports that the number of affirmative asylum applications by individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle Countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) continues to rise – from 3,523 in 2012 to 31,066 in 2017. Furthermore, unaccompanied children filed the majority of these applications, making up 66 percent of the applications in 2015 and 56 percent in both 2016 and 2017. 

Seeking Refuge focuses on Central American asylum seekers and the legal obstacles they face in gaining asylum status. With waves of migration affecting the Americas and recent changes to asylum law, Morgan's class targets an urgent and complex area of study. The course examines how achieving asylum in the U.S. is influenced by current legal frameworks, and how the rise of xenophobia in the country affects asylum seekers. She hopes that the class will prompt students to think critically about how the U.S. legal system benefits and harms individuals living as refugees.

Morgan was interested in public interest law before entering law school, though expected her educational background to lead her to human rights law abroad. After witnessing what life was like for refugees in Tanzania, who escaped extreme trauma and violence in their home countries but were not formally recognized as refugees, her interest in refugee law became a passion. In law school, Morgan became involved with Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), where she was drawn to the more personal and heartfelt nature of refugee work. Today, Morgan works at GBLS where her legal advocacy changes the lives of asylum seekers and immigrants as she represents them at the trial and appellate levels. She also supervises law students and the next generation of advocates on asylum cases at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC).

Morgan is an ExCollege veteran, having previously co-taught a class on the Affordable Care Act. She enjoys the interactive learning and teaching relationship that the ExCollege offers. "I feel very strongly that topics such as immigration law can be learned by anyone, regardless of their legal background, and that the best way to learn the material is to engage directly with it, through practical exercises, critical analysis of readings, and thoughtful discussion," stated Morgan.

Student Dorothy Neher, Class of 2020, finds the class to be a unique experience, giving her insight into a crucial piece of U.S. identity and history. "The professor is extremely knowledgeable about the subject matter and brings in her work experiences often," Dorothy says. "This is a much needed class at Tufts, and I think it’s really important that the ExCollege is offering it!"

In a country where immigration has become a highly contested topic, Morgan says there’s no better time to learn about immigration policy and how it changes both the legal field and the country as a whole. "I hope that students will have a more extensive toolbox of knowledge and critical thinking skills by which to evaluate the rapid and frequently jarring policy changes happening in our political environment." It’s clear that this course isn’t just for individuals interested in public policy, human rights, or law. Seeking Refuge provides a vital understanding of how the U.S. has grown and flourished through the hard work and innovative minds of refugees and immigrants.

About the Author:
Grace Prendergast is a first-year student from Evanston, Illinois, studying Biology. She enjoys reading, listening to music, and hanging out with friends in her free time.