Senate Immigration Bill Passes, But Puts Refugees at Risk
On May 26, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611) by a vote of 62 to 36, setting the stage for a conference committee showdown with H.R. 4437, the controversial enforcement-heavy immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives last December. Unlike the House bill, S. 2611 would give many undocumented immigrants the right to work legally in this country, and would provide some with a path to citizenship.
Several provisions in the Senate-passed immigration reform bill will endanger refugees who have fled persecution, putting them at risk of increased detention, mistaken deportations, and even criminal prosecutions. The House bill contains a series of extreme provisions that would criminalize asylum seekers and others.
On the positive side, at least one problematic provision was removed from the Senate bill: A bipartisan amendment, sponsored by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), passed by a vote of 52 to 45 just before final passage of S. 2611. The Feingold-Brownback amendment preserved the ability of a federal court to prevent a refugee’s deportation back to their country of persecution while their asylum case is pending.
Senate and House members will be negotiating their vast differences in the upcoming conference committee (which has not yet been scheduled). At that time, they must address provisions that put vulnerable refugees at risk of being returned to persecution.
Much of the national debate on immigration reform has ignored the impact of various immigration “enforcement” proposals on those who flee persecution and seek refuge in the United States. In fact, both the House and Senate bills, as well as the President’s plan, contain some harsh provisions that would put those who flee persecution at risk of being deported back to the very countries from which they have escaped.
The final Senate bill would, for example, allow a refugee who has fled from political, religious or other persecution to be:
- Prosecuted and barred from asylum if she uses a false document to escape to this country; and
- Detained unfairly and for extended periods of time.
Human Rights First, together with a diverse group of faith-based, human rights, and refugee assistance organizations, has opposed provisions that would harm refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable populations. Many groups have called on the Senate to support an amendment, advanced by Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Brownback, that would improve the plight of detained asylum seekers and implement recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Shape of the Debate
In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping immigration bill (H.R. 4437) that contained many extreme provisions, including those that would lead genuine refugees to be deported back to the very countries that they have fled.
As the immigration debate passed to the U.S. Senate, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) advanced one proposal and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) advanced another. While Senator Frist’s bill only included immigration “enforcement” provisions, both proposals contained provisions that would penalize refugees and put them at risk of deportation. Several improvements made to the Specter bill were included in the “compromise” reform proposal offered by Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Mel Martinez (R-FL).
On April 7, 2006, the Senate failed to reach agreement on the Hagel-Martinez compromise proposal. Republicans and Democrats ultimately split over the number of amendments Senators could offer to the compromise bill during full floor debate.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA) announced that negotiations would continue after Congress returned from recess on April 24. Chairman Specter will likely focus on the Hagel-Martinez compromise proposal, which tries to establish a guest worker program while offering a “tiered” path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers currently in the U.S.
The Harmful Provisions
For asylum seekers, the Hagel-Martinez compromise still contains a number of harsh provisions. For example:
- An asylum seeker could be prosecuted for using a false passport to escape to the U.S. Although an amendment was made to provide an exception for asylum seekers, the language leaves many unprotected. (Section 208)
- An asylum seeker could be denied the chance to seek a “stay” to prevent her deportation while her appeal is pending before a federal court. As a result, she could be deported back to her country of persecution while her case is still before the U.S. court. (Section 227(c))
- The bill would also require the expansion of summary deportation procedures, known as “expedited removal,” to individuals apprehended within 100 miles of a land border and within 14 days of entry. This expansion would increase detention and undermine due process. (Section 227)
- The bill would allow the prolonged detention of asylum seekers whose cases are on appeal to the federal courts, and the indefinite detention of both immigrants and failed asylum seekers. (Section 202 seeks to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Zadvydas decision.)
A number of harmful provisions limiting judicial review were removed from Senator Specter’s bill (known as the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act”) and did not appear in the Hagel-Martinez compromise bill. These provisions would have sent all immigration appeals to the Federal Circuit Court (which primarily handles patent cases) and limit access to appeals. (Sections 701 and 707.) Human Rights First has actively opposed these provisions because genuine refugees could be deported back to danger if they are prevented from getting mistaken asylum denials corrected by the U.S. courts.
Human Rights First and other organizations support an amendment, offered by Senators Lieberman (D-CT) and Brownback (R-KS), that would implement several important recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) relating to the detention of asylum seekers. On April 6, HRF joined 55 faith-based, refugee assistance, and other organizations – as well as 25 individuals – in expressing concern about the treatment of those who seek refuge in this country and urging support of the Lieberman-Brownback amendment.
Additional background information: