Whether they are victims of religious persecution from Sudan, torture survivors from Iraq, pro-democracy activists fleeing a repressive regime in Congo, victims of coercive population control policies in China, women who have fled from threatened “honor killings,” or gay men attacked in Colombia because of their sexual orientation, those who flee to the United States arrive with the belief that they have finally reached a place where they will be safe, free and treated fairly. For those who seek asylum at U.S. borders and airports, the welcome they receive – a welcome that routinely includes handcuffs, shackles and mandatory detention – can be a devastating surprise.
The hurdles facing asylum seekers are truly daunting. Summary “expedited removal” procedures, “mandatory detention,” inconsistent parole practices, and lack of government-funded legal representation are among the many hurdles arriving asylum seekers must navigate in their efforts to secure refuge in the United States. In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, these hurdles have only multiplied as the U.S. government has taken steps that have had the effect of further eroding the fairness of the U.S. asylum process and further restricting access to asylum.
Since 1978, Human Rights First has worked to protect and promote fundamental human rights and to ensure protection of the rights of refugees, including the right to seek asylum. Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection Program is committed to advancing the rights of refugees. We accomplish this objective by ensuring that refugees have access to asylum, by advocating for fair asylum procedures, by pressing for U.S. compliance with international refugee and human rights law, and by helping individual refugees to win asylum through our pro bono Asylum Legal Representation Program.
Our asylum advocacy is informed by the experiences of our refugee clients and their pro bono lawyers. Often, it is these refugees and their pro bono lawyers who first flag for us specific problems in the U.S. asylum system that need to be remedied. We work to improve the U.S. asylum system in many ways: by advocating for fairness in U.S. laws and policies, by filing comments on proposed changes to regulations, by educating the public, by meeting with U.S. government officials, and by filing amicus briefs in federal court cases that concern significant issues of U.S. asylum law. Through our action alerts and our refugee protection newsletter, we are in regular communication with an extensive network of individuals across the country who are concerned about the U.S.’s treatment of those who seek refuge in this country.
Given our extensive network of refugee clients and our hands-on knowledge of the asylum system, we have been uniquely positioned to document the deficiencies in the U.S. asylum system. For instance, in a series of reports issued between 1998 and 2008, we have documented the unfair and inhumane effects of detention and expedited removal.
Our Asylum Legal Representation Program – founded by legendary refugee advocate Arthur Helton, who directed it for 12 years – is one of the largest and most successful pro bono legal representation programs for refugees in the United States. With the help of dedicated pro bono lawyers, the Asylum Legal Representation Program, based in New York and Washington, currently represents more than 1,000 clients from 88 countries. These refugees include torture survivors, victims of religious, political and ethnic persecution, and men and women fleeing from persecution based on gender or sexual orientation. Many of these refugees have been detained at large detention facilities in New York and New Jersey and in county jails around the country.