For Immediate Release: February 11, 2005
House Bill, To Be Voted On This Week, Would Impose
Today, the bi-partisan U.S. government Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a comprehensive report that documents a number of serious failings in U.S. treatment of refugees who seek asylum in the United States. The 500 page report provides unprecedented information about the challenges that refugees face in seeking asylum in the U.S. and recommends changes that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must make to ensure the proper treatment of asylum seekers.
“This report confirms just how difficult it already is for refugees who flee from religious and other persecution to navigate their way through the U.S. asylum system,” said Eleanor Acer, Director of Human Rights First’s Asylum Program. “Ironically, the House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would make these problems even worse.”
That bill, the REAL ID Act (H.R. 418), is being spearheaded by Republican James Sensenbrenner, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would, among other things, give immigration officers and immigration judges broad leeway to deny a refugee asylum based on alleged “statements” taken in unreliable circumstances – the very kind of statements that the Commission, in its report, concluded were “unreliable and incomplete.” The Commission’s experts specifically found that immigration judges frequently cited to these unreliable documents when denying asylum.
The Commission, which monitors religious freedom around the world and advises the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress on religious freedom, was authorized in 2003 by Congress to undertake this study relating to asylum seekers in “expedited removal,” the deportation process that allows immigration officers to order deportations, a power previously entrusted only to immigration judges.
The Commission’s experts had unprecedented access to the asylum system, and the report contains statistics and information that have never been publicly released before.
The findings of the Commission’s study include:
- There are serious problems with the expedited process that put asylum seekers at risk of improper return – in 15% of the cases observed by the Commission experts, people who expressed a fear of return were not given a chance to be interviewed by an asylum officer;
- Most asylum seekers are held in jails or jail-like facilities that the Commission found inappropriate for asylum seekers. These conditions create a serious risk of psychological harm to asylum seekers;
- About 32% of asylum seekers are jailed for 90 days or more and the average length of their detention in these jail-like facilities is 64 days. Some are held longer; release rates vary widely across the country, with parole rates as low as 0.5 in New Orleans, 8.4% in New York and 3.8% in Newark, New Jersey;
- Statistics show a significant drop in the rate at which local immigration officers have released asylum seekers from these jail-like facilities on parole in the years since September 11;
- Asylum seekers who did not have an attorney had a much lower chance of being granted asylum than those who did;
- There are significant variations in the rate at which immigration judges grant asylum – from court to court, and from judge to judge within the same court – requiring better quality assurance and administrative review;
- The approval of asylum appeals in expedited cases has dropped significantly since the Department of Justice made changes in 2002. While the Board of Immigration Appeals sustained 24% of these appeals in 2001, only 2 to 4% of these appeals have been granted since 2002; and
- There are serious impediments to communication within the Department of Homeland Security and it is exceedingly difficult to resolve inter-bureau issues, leading the Commission to recommend that the Department create a high level refugee position to address asylum matters.
Human Rights First has documented the difficulties that refugees who seek asylum face in these expedited procedures and in immigration jails, most recently in its January 2004 report In Liberty’s Shadow: U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers in the Era of Homeland Security. Human Rights First has recommended that the Department of Homeland Security create a high-level refugee protection position and formal rules to ensure that refugees who seek asylum are not needlessly jailed. The Commission concurs in these recommendations.