With the escalating tension between the U.S. and Iran, DHS has been detaining Iranian Americans and Iranian nationals at the border and questioning them about their ties to Iran, their background, their family members, and their opinion about the Iranian government.

On the one hand, it's perfectly reasonable to question people entering our country, particularly during wartime (and when was the last time we were not at war?). It's also reasonable to apply additional scrutiny to people from "enemy nations." And so, on one level, it makes sense to look more closely at Iranian Americans and Iranian nationals who are seeking entry into the United States.

On the other hand, it's difficult to accept anything the Trump Administration does without feeling that there is an ulterior motive. At this point, we have been subject to so many lies, in the service of such bad policies, that nothing the Administration does can be viewed at face value. Is there any intelligence that indicates Iran is planning to retaliate by sending agents to our country? Is there any reason to suspect the particular people stopped and questioned at the border? Or does the Administration just want to scare us, in order to further justify its xenophobic policies? Or maybe to distract from the impeachment? There is no way to know, and when you can't trust what your own government tells you, it is impossible to evaluate whether its actions are warranted.

In any event, here I want to talk about asylum during wartime. I suppose one response to war would be to shut down the border completely, block all nationals from the enemy country from coming to the U.S., and take measures against any of those nationals (or their decedents) living in the United States. We did the latter during the Second World War, when we detained Americans of Japanese decent. Notably, we did not detain Germans or Italians, even though we were also at war with those countries. But what about granting asylum to "enemy aliens" during wartime? Welcoming them to our country, even though we are at war with their homeland?

There certainly is precedent for giving refuge to "enemy aliens." Probably the most famous examples are the scientists who fled fascism and anti-Semitism during the Second World War. People like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi found refuge in the United States and made important contributions to our efforts during the War (I'm not a fan of the Bomb, but I'm glad we got it before the Nazis). Another well-known example is the Cubans who fled Communism after Fidel Castro took power on their native island. For the past six decades, those same Cubans have been fierce opponents of the Castro regime. A third example is the Iranians who came to the United States after the 1979 revolution. While they generally oppose military intervention against their homeland, most Iranian Americans support democracy and human rights in Iran.

I encountered a less well-known example when I lived in Philadelphia in the mid-1990's. I met an old man at my synagogue who had been a refugee during WWII. He was Jewish, born in Germany. During the 1930's, he fled to Britain as a refugee. When the War started, he was detained as an enemy alien and shipped (by boat) to Australia. He was stuck down under for a while, until the Brits realized that he spoke German, and so they shipped him all the way back to England to serve in an intelligence unit. He assisted the Allies during the War, and then later immigrated to the United States.

Also, in my job, I meet people every day who are working to bring democracy and human rights to their countries of origin. Once they get their bearings in the U.S., many of my clients work directly or indirectly to assist the United States with diplomacy and national security. My client from Iran, for instance, is a computer expert who works to overcome censorship in his home country (and in other authoritarian countries), so people can access websites blocked by the government. Another client, from Afghanistan, organizes conferences, bringing high-level American and foreign experts together to discuss national security challenges. A third client advocates for democracy in Cambodia, and is regularly in contact with important U.S. government officials. And a number of my clients work for Voice of American (on and off the air), bringing news and promoting American values in their home countries. You get the point: Foreign nationals who have obtained refuge in the United States, often from hostile regimes, are working to advance U.S. interests and to educate U.S. decision-makers and the public, so we can better respond to national security challenges.

And herein lies the rub: How do we obtain the benefits of this expertise while minimizing the risk to our security? The answer, I think, is asylum. Remember, we do not offer asylum to just anyone who fears harm. Asylum is for people who face persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. These "protected grounds" reflect our national values, and thus, asylum is basically set up to benefit people who will benefit us. Asylum seekers are also subject to rigorous security background checks. And so if the system is working properly, we will receive refugees from hostile regimes who will be well-vetted and will present minimal risk to our national security, and who are well-positioned to assist our country vis-a-vis their homelands.

Of course, when a conflict exists between our nation and another nation, we must exercise caution in dealing with citizens of the hostile power. We should use all the tools at our disposal to advance our interests and to keep ourselves safe. Asylum is one of those tools. Rather than discard the asylum system during wartime, we should use it as it was intended--to benefit those who support our values, and to benefit ourselves.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com