By William Fisher
Immigrants-rights activists are virtually unanimous in their endorsement of proposed legislation that would change decades of U.S. asylum practices. But proponents of the legislation fear it may never find its way out of the U.S. Senate to the President’s desk.
Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 (S.3113) back in March. The objective of the bill is to “affirm the U.S. commitment to provide refuge to individuals fleeing persecution in their homelands.”
It helps restore protection to deserving individuals fleeing persecution and torture, who have been denied refuge under increasingly restrictive immigration laws and court decisions. The bill protects women and girls fleeing gender-based harms -- such as forced marriage, female genital cutting, honor killings, and domestic violence -- children seeking asylum on their own, traumatized or isolated refugees who are unable to file an application for asylum within one year of arrival to the U.S., and other vulnerable victims of persecution.
But Congress-watchers point out that “historically, major refugee and immigration reform bills have not moved through Congress the same year that they were introduced. In addition, the Senate calendar has been so choked with health care legislation and other “must pass” bill that the House of Representatives is now referring to the upper body as “the place where bills go to die.”
Finally, the status of the Leahy bill could change if The White House decides to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation during the current session of Congress.
Meanwhile, pro-immigration groups are lobbying senators to obtain more co-sponsors. Thus far, all are Democrats; getting two or three Republicans is one of the objectives of the White House, but immigration is one of the most predictable third rails of American politics, especially in a mid-term election year.
But if grassroots support were ever enough to get a bill through the Senate, Leahy’s legislation would have smooth sailing. It has been lavishly endorsed by more than 25 of the country’s leading immigration organizations.
One of the most respected, The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings, said the legislation “makes critical reforms to our asylum laws and procedures, and helps bring the U.S. in line with its treaty obligations.”
Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee policy program, told IPS, “The bill identifies the serious gaps and overly restrictive provisions in the US refugee and asylum system—the overly broad definition of terrorist activities for inadmissibility; the one-year filing deadline for asylum claims; disparate treatment of different nationality groups interdicted at sea; the lack of legal assistance for particularly vulnerable asylum seekers; the one-year delay in allowing refugees and asylees to adjust to lawful permanent resident status.”
In addition, he added, the legislation “confirms reforms that the Obama Administration appears to be trying to implement administratively, such as paroling from detention asylum seekers who establish a credible fear of persecution and promulgating regulations governing conditions of detention.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on the Senate to swiftly pass the bill. “The Refugee Protection Act is a crucial step towards removing some of the obstacles that have prevented victims of persecution from obtaining refugee protection in the U.S.,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The Senate should take Senator Leahy’s lead and pass this bill as soon as possible.”
Amnesty International USA applauded Senator Leahy’s efforts, which it said would “reposition the US as a champion of refugee rights in the 21st century.”
"Thirty years ago this week, Congress passed landmark legislation that created important standards for America's response to refugees seeking our protection," said Human Rights First's Eleanor Acer. "In the decades since then, America has faltered in its commitment to the persecuted. Today, Senators Leahy and Levin have introduced legislation that will put our nation back on track and strengthen U.S. refugee protection laws so that they can once again reflect our values and commitments."
Leahy’s legislation includes provisions that would eliminate the one year asylum filing deadline that bars refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum; remove barriers that prevent some asylum seekers from receiving prompt review by the immigration courts of detention decisions so that these asylum seekers are not subject to prolonged and arbitrary detention; clarify the "particular social group" basis and "nexus" requirements for asylum so that the asylum requests of vulnerable individuals, including women fleeing gender-based persecution and refugees persecuted for their sexual orientation, are adjudicated fairly and consistently; and protect refugees from inappropriate exclusion by refining the definitions of "terrorist activity" and "terrorist organization" so that our immigration laws target actual terrorists, as opposed to hurting thousands of legitimate refugees who are not guilty of any wrongdoing and pose no threat to American security.
The legislation has won the endorsement of the nation’s leading immigration advocates, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the International Rescue Committee, the National Immigration Forum, the American Immigration Association, the American Bar Association, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The legislation would make several critical reforms to U.S. asylum laws. Notably, the bill clarifies definitions of what actions constitute “material support” to ensure that the innocent acts of asylum-seekers are not mislabeled as terrorist activities. The bill promotes efficient immigration proceedings by allowing the Attorney General to appoint immigration counsel where fair resolution or effective adjudication of proceedings would be served by appointment of counsel.
The bill also establishes a nationwide, secure “alternatives to detention” program, and institutes detention reforms to ensure access to counsel, medical care, religious practice and family contact visits. Finally, the bill restores judicial review to a fair and reasonable standard consistent with administrative law principles.
One of the cruelest ironies for people seeking protection in the US – many of whom have been detained and tortured at home – is that they are subject to mandatory detention as soon as they request “safety” here. Despite the fact that this law is in direct violation of obligations under the Refugee Convention, the US continues to use detention as a means to deter refugees from seeking asylum or to encourage them to abandon their asylum applications.