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Looking Within to Inform US Asylum Policy

The legacy of African American migration, protection, and asylum should inform our international refugee policies.

Words: LeRoy G. Potts, Jr.
Pictures: Jacob Lawrence, Courtesy The Phillips Collection

For years, I have worked in positions focused on documenting human rights abuses and detailing atrocities that cause people to leave their countries of origin. As Chief of the Research Division in the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and as a former managing editor of the State Department’s annual human rights report, I have researched countless wars and the population shifts that follow.

During the Gulf War in 1991, I tracked the movement of more than one million refugees who fled to Turkey and Iran, many facing imminent death after sheltering in the mountains without food or cover. On the grounds of an empty school compound in Uganda in 2012, in a large room with simple wood tables and assorted chairs, my DHS colleagues and I spent weeks interviewing hundreds of refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The room’s plain furnishings stood in contrast to the horrifying stories of violence, loss, and flight we listened to morning to night as we set in motion the process of bringing these individuals and families to safety in the US.

I know firsthand that the US can be a “welcoming” nation. But this compassionate side of America is hard to reconcile with the low number of refugees and asylum seekers the United States now admits, in part a consequence of 472 changes to immigration laws and policies that the previous presidential administration instituted. The Trump administration set the 2021 refugee ceiling at 15,000 people — just 15% of the refugee target of 110,000 set by the Obama administration in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And in two of its four years, the Trump administration admitted the fewest number of refugees per year since the resettlement program began in 1980.

While not all directed at refugees and asylum seekers, the 472 changes to immigration policy ended the dreams of many immigrants of color. The Biden administration is working to rescind many of these changes, but the damage to US refugee and asylum programs was profound, and recovery will take years. While reflecting on the damage and how to move forward, I felt compelled as an African American to engage in a deeper examination and conversation with US history, migration, immigration, protection, and their intersection with race and my family’s story.

An Overlooked Narrative — Our Own History

A few years ago, I started researching my genealogy and found a powerful convergence between my family history and my current work on asylum, refugees, and humanitarian protection. In the quiet Special Collections Room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Library in Washington, and in the Library of Congress, I discovered documents that revealed unknown family history and ties to a network of Civil War era institutions established to protect African American refugees. Scanning US census records, I discovered that my paternal grandmother and her older sister were orphaned at ages 5 and 11 and placed in an orphanage known as the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, DC (“the Home”). During the Civil War, fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of African Americans, who desperately searched for safety. Their journeys led abolitionists to create an informal network of “asylums” or homes to care for them. My grandmother, Edna Wineberg, and my great-aunt, Bess Wineberg, were recorded as residents in the Home in 1910.

If we confront the tragedies at home and incorporate the stories of African American migration into the mainstream of American historical discourse, we can begin to make amends to those who we failed to protect and better assist those who need help today.

The circumstances surrounding their placement in the orphanage remain a family mystery, but I was eager to learn what I could of their childhood and I continued to research the origins of the orphanage. Established in June 1863 during the Civil War, the home opened at Burleith, a Georgetown mansion owned by Richard S. Cox, who abandoned his property to join the Confederacy. The orphanage served as “a response to the crisis of orphaned refugee slaves in Washington,” according to historian Carlton Fletcher. One of a handful of institutions established during the war years to care for African American refugees trying to find safety and protection behind Union lines, the Home received 64 formerly enslaved persons, most of them children.

Sadly, the refugees who survived the journey out of enslavement through the war-torn South found little safety, protection, food, or shelter, even when they reached free states. Between 1862 and 1866, thousands of African American refugees entered Washington, but as many as a third died from unsanitary conditions in the shanties and makeshift camps they inhabited.

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Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north. Between 1940 and 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1942.

One would think for those refugee children, acceptance into The Home would have been the end to their tribulations: escaping their enslavers, making treacherous journeys to Union-held territory, surviving the abysmal conditions in the refugee camps, on top of the loss of their parents. But the war’s end brought other miseries to African Americans, and the saga of the Home’s refugee residents is just one example. Reconstruction laws allowed Richard Cox to petition the US government for a pardon and to have his estate returned to him. On December 3, 1866, Cox forcibly evicted the women and children from Burleith.

Cox’s determination to wrest his property back from 64 vulnerable children was operatic in scope and deed. Though influential and well-connected, the abolitionists that founded the home had anticipated the possibility of such a disaster and had begun constructing a new asylum near Howard University. But, the refugees’ eviction came before the new building’s completion. The children were tossed into the street and forced to occupy an unfinished facility that left them exposed to the harsh winter, days before Christmas. Reports speak of “the severe exposure suffered…in our forced Exodus from our Georgetown Home (an Exodus without a Moses, but not without a Pharaoh).”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 57: The female workers were the last to arrive north. Between 1940 and 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1942.

African American history is intertwined with migration stories, which are alternately painful and triumphant. Few knew that better than the brilliant artist Jacob Lawrence, who in the 1940s painted an ambitious 60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following the outbreak of World War I. Lawrence’s Migration Series, held jointly by the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art, is breathtaking in its range, yet powerfully intimate, like panel 57, which depicts a solitary woman washing clothes in a large vat, and the caption “the female workers were the last to arrive.”

Past is Prologue  

As I continue to explore the early asylum movement and the migration of formerly enslaved persons seeking protection during and after the Civil War, I see its potential for expanding narratives and understanding of today’s asylum seekers and refugees in the US and elsewhere. It should also compel us to speak out and act when we see the mistreatment of refugees today. It is heartbreaking and maddening to hear reports of discrimination and physical abuse faced by African and Asian refugees trying to flee the conflict in Ukraine. UN High Commissioner on Refugees Filippo Grandi noted there are instances of differentiation of treatment at the borders based on race, but that these are not state policies. Black and Asian refugees who have received discriminatory treatment will find little comfort in that news. Fortunately, some private citizens have taken matters into their own hands and are raising funds and awareness about the plight of the African and Asian refugees in need of assistance. The private effort is a worthy endeavor, but it doesn’t relieve governments, UNHCR, and non-governmental organizations of their responsibility to call on officials in the region to treat everyone in need of protection equally.

The United States has a complex and episodic history with protection. Americans can take pride in the successful programs operating across various departments and agencies providing protection and assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. Our asylum and refugee programs represent our core values and reflect our nation’s commitment to building a more stable world after World War II. However, while fundamental human rights ought to receive universal support, these programs remain vulnerable to partisan politics. Moreover, when tied to US foreign policy and national security debates, Americans see US protection programs merely as a good deed performed beyond our borders. Rarely do we consider the opportunity our protection programs provide us to reflect on our history or reckon with the harm we have caused within our borders.

A process of atonement might start with an in-depth examination of the personal impact those 472 changes to immigration law instituted under the previous administration had on asylum-seeking families and individuals within our country and around the world. Though arguably race-neutral, these changes undoubtedly fell hardest on people of color, especially Black refugees and asylum seekers. Their implementation prevented many from accessing the US asylum program altogether. It also alarmed and compelled many undocumented migrants and asylum seekers to leave the US and flee to Canada. Since 2017, nearly 60,000 people who had come to our country seeking protection crossed illegally into Canada from the US.

As legislators and policymakers consider options for repairing our broken immigration system, for me, its rejuvenation rests upon a reckoning with historic racist and anti-immigrant acts. A reckoning should begin with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security developing content on their websites and within their numerous publications that will inform employees and the public alike about historical and contemporary errors. For Black History Month — the February of every year — it is commendable that public and private institutions celebrate the achievers and their accomplishments. It is also critically important that institutions create space to teach the public about the harm done to America’s Indigenous populations and the thousands of formerly enslaved women and children who died seeking asylum during the Civil War. Indeed, I am disappointed that my work — regardless of the continent or the era — has operated in a place that is disconnected from and unaware of our nation’s role in displacing African Americans, especially when that history created institutions and shaped language and narratives that can enhance our understanding of asylum and refugee protection.

Reckoning with racism requires effort by government, democratic institutions, the private sector, and citizens. If we confront the tragedies at home and incorporate the stories of African American migration into the mainstream of American historical discourse, we can begin to make amends to the African American men, women, and children we failed to protect and better assist today’s refugees and asylum seekers, regardless of their race or country of origin.

LeRoy G. Potts, Jr.

LeRoy G. Potts, Jr. is Chief of the Research Division in the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. He specializes in providing country conditions research to the agency's officers who decide complex refugee and asylum cases. He has worked at USCIS since 2008. From 1990–2008, he was a Foreign Affairs Officer at the Department of State. He was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Canada, 2020–2021 and drafted this essay during his fellowship (October 2021–March 2022). The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of USCIS or any part of the federal government.

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