|What is a refugee?
Refugees are people who are persecuted in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group. For refugees, the fear of persecution is so strong that they feel they must flee to another country to escape harm or danger.
Refugees – people who fear harm or persecution in their home country – can ask for a form of protection known as “asylum” after arriving in the United States. Asylum-seekers must prove that their fear of persecution is well-founded and based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
America is reneging on its promise to protect those who come here seeking safety from the most horrific forms of persecution – among them, ethnic cleansing, rape as a weapon of war, attacks based on religious affiliation, and arrest and abuse based on political views.
The REAL ID Act, passed by the U.S. Congress as part of an emergency spending bill on Iraq and Tsunami aid, was signed into law by President Bush on May 11, 2005. The REAL ID Act makes it much harder for refugees to prove that they qualify for legal protection – also called asylum – in the United States.
Human Rights First believes the REAL ID Act seriously erodes the basic rights of asylum applicants and flies in the face of America’s historic commitment to refugees. It denies fair treatment and violates international obligations to refugees. Moreover, its provisions are culturally insensitive and broadly expand the power of immigration judges to make life or death decisions.
The REAL ID Act damages the ability of refugees to gain protection while fleeing oppressive regimes. Under the REAL ID Act, refugees will be denied asylum:
- Because they do not look a judge in the eye – or because of other aspects of their “demeanor.” The REAL ID Act allows an immigration judge to deny asylum to a refugee based on her lack of eye-contact or because she shows too little emotion. This provision fails to take into account how people from different cultures interact with authority figures – in particular, in talking about traumatic personal experiences.
- Because they cannot talk about rape with a male immigration officer. An immigration judge can deny protection in the United States to a woman who was raped by soldiers as punishment for her religious beliefs if she is unable to tell armed male airport inspectors about the rape, but later tells the judge. This provision fails to appreciate the discomfort women from different cultures feel in talking about violent sexual abuse, to men who are armed and in uniform – much like their attackers.
- Because their relatives were extorted by terrorist groups. The REAL ID Act allows people who bear no personal responsibility for terrorist acts – even the wives and children of victims of extortion by militant groups – to be deported and barred from asylum based on overly broad definitions of “terrorism” and of what constitutes “supporting” terrorism.
Broad Coalition Fights Back to Achieve Gains
Human Rights First led a broad coalition of religious and human rights groups in opposing the restrictive asylum provisions of REAL ID. Our work and that of groups including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Anti-Defamation League, and Congressional leaders like Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) prevented some of the worst language from being included in the bill. For refugees, this means:
- A person whose case is pending before a federal court is able to stay and argue their case. With earlier language, they could have been deported into the arms of their jailers and killers, even while their cases were pending before a federal court.
- A person who has been granted asylum can become permanent residents much faster – very good news for over 160,000 people who have currently been waiting over 15 years for this status. This is possible because the agreement reached lifts the numerical cap contained in the present statute.
- A person fleeing coercive population control can be given a final grant of asylum. This bill lifts the annual cap on eligibility of the number of refugees who can be granted asylum based on having fled forced abortion or sterilization which currently impacts over 9000 individuals.
History of the Bill
The REAL ID Act was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) on January 26, 2005, and included provisions that place refugees at an increased risk of persecution and erode this countrys historic commitment to protect those seeking safe haven. In the House, the bill (called H.R. 418) passed on February 10, 2005. On March 16, it was attached to the emergency spending bill on Iraq and tsunami aid (H.R. 1268) which was then passed by the House. This emergency spending bill was considered a “must pass” bill, meaning that it would certainly come to a vote. The House leadership therefore attached REAL ID to it in order to press the Senate to accept REAL ID’s anti-refugee provisions without sufficient consideration or debate. The REAL ID Act was passed by Congress on May 10 and signed into law by President Bush on May 11, 2005.
Human Rights First, together with a diverse group of faith-based, human rights, and refugee assistance organizations, opposed this bill on the grounds that it would harm refugees and undermine this country’s commitment to protecting those who flee persecution.
On March 30, 2005, a diverse group of nearly 80 organizations and over 80 individuals sent a letter to the Senate urging them to oppose sections 101 and 105 of H.R. 418. They called on the Senate to give “careful, deliberate consideration” to the House passed REAL ID Act, which ”will have devastating consequences for bona fide asylum-seekers and refugees without making our nation safer.”
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report
A ground-breaking report issued on February 8, 2005 by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) documents some serious failings in this country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The report shows how hard it already is for refugees who flee from religious and other persecution to receive asylum in this country. The REAL ID Act further increases the already significant burdens facing those who seek refuge in this country.
Proponents of the REAL ID Act repeatedly characterized it as necessary to prevent terrorists from “gaming” the system. The law in existence before the enactment of REAL ID, however, already barred those who present a security risk from getting asylum. Asylum seekers currently undergo rigorous security and background checks from the time they apply until they are granted. In fact, they continue to undergo these clearances even after being granted asylum and until they receive their green card.
The bill also contains one provision that helps refugees. The bill lifts the limit on the number of asylees who can receive permanent resident status in the U.S. Because of this limit, refugees who have already been granted asylum must wait 15 years before they can become permanent residents – delaying their path to citizenship.
The bill resurrects several controversial anti-immigrant and anti-refugee provisions dropped from the final version of the “Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004″ in December 2004 due to widespread opposition. The bill will fundamentally change U.S. asylum law. Many refugees who have fled brutal human rights abuses — including torture, rape, and other horrific violence — will be barred from receiving asylum under these provisions.
Widespread Opposition to the REAL ID Act
- Latino Leadership Urges President Bush to Remove REAL ID from Troop Relief Bill
- Jubilee Campaign Opposes Asylum Provisions of REAL ID Act (PDF – 210KB)
- Faithful but Forsaken – REAL ID Act Harms Victims of Religious Persecution (report endorsed by more than 30 faith-based and non-governmental organizations) (PDF – 1.5MB)
- Over 50 Asian Pacific American Organizations Urge Senate to Oppose REAL ID (PDF – 22KB)
- Statement of Dr. Barrett Duke from the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
(PDF – 206KB)
- Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (PDF – 78KB)
- Letter Re REAL ID Act from 12 Senators to Senator Frist (PDF – 313KB)
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Oppose REAL ID Act (PDF – 61KB)
- Faith-Based Groups Oppose Asylum-Related Provisions of REAL ID Act (PDF – 14KB)
- From Doctor to Doctor, Over 100 Health Professionals Urge Senator Frist to Oppose REAL ID Act
(PDF – 27KB)
- 138 Anti-Violence Organizations Urge Senate to Oppose REAL ID Act (PDF – 36KB)
- Human Rights First Opposes Sections 101, 103, 104, and 105 of the REAL ID Act (PDF – 104KB)
- Over 80 Organizations and Over 80 Individuals Urge the Senate to Oppose Sections 101 and 105 of theREAL ID Act (PDF – 232KB)
- Latino Groups Urge Senators to Oppose REAL ID Act (PDF – 20KB)
- Letter from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University to Senate Majority Leader Frist Urging to Not Support REAL ID Act (PDF – 164KB)
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund Urges the Senate to Vote Against REAL ID Act (PDF – 84KB)
- The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and 64 other organizations urge opposition to REAL ID Act (PDF – 70KB)
- Letter from Jewish Community Leaders to the Senate Opposing REAL ID Act (PDF – 15KB)
- American Bar Association opposes anti-refugee provisions of REAL ID Act (PDF – 142KB)
- Over 50 Organizations Oppose Sensenbrenner’s REAL ID Act and Subsequent Amendment, February 9, 2005 (PDF – 7KB)
- Coalition of individuals and rights organizations oppose REAL ID Act (PDF – 24KB)
- Interfaith Statement: REAL ID Act Threatens Ability of Victims of Persecution to Find Safe Haven in the United States, February 4, 2005 (PDF – 14KB)
- Interfaith Report: Faithful but Forsaken: REAL ID Act Harms Victims of Religious Persecution
- HRF Letter Opposing Sections101, 103 and 104 of the REAL ID (PDF – 107KB)
- Sign-on Letter by over 40 organizations and 70 individuals opposing section 101 of the REAL ID Act (PDF- 31KB)
- Letter by 35 Asian Pacific American organizations opposing the REAL ID Act (PDF – 14KB)
- Letter from Latino organizations opposing the REAL ID Act (PDF -15KB)
- Women’s rights organizations oppose the REAL ID Act (PDF – 50KB)
Commentary by Cory Smith, Legislative Counsel for Human Rights First, on the REAL ID Act
The REAL ID Act in the Media
- “Jewish Groups Oppose US’s Stricter Controls on Asylum,” Jerusalem Post, March 9, 2005
- “Death Sentence?” Christianity Today, March 8, 2005
- “Republican Plan Would Tighten Laws for Asylum Cases,” Hearst Newspapers, March 6, 2005
- “Keep the Doors Open,” The Jewish Week editorial, February 25, 2005
- “Unwelcome Mat,” The Boston Globe, February 25, 2005
- “Religious Asylum Assailed,” Family News in Focus, February 22, 2005 (PDF – 51KB)
- “Proyecto de ley torpedea el derecho de asilo,” El Nuevo Herald, February 22, 2005
- “Conservative camps split on tightening asylum,” The Boston Globe, February 21, 2005
- “Not broke, don’t fix,” The Washington Times, February 20, 2005
- “National ID Party,” The Wall Street Journal editorial, February 17, 2005 (subscription required)
- “On Guard, America,” The New York Times editorial, February 15, 2005
- “Refugee Politics,” The Baltimore Sun editorial, February 14, 2005
- “REAL ID Act deserves defeat in the Senate,” San Antonio Express-Newseditorial, February 18, 2005
- “Playing the terror card,” Contra Costa Times, February 14, 2005
- “Ineffectual migrant policy,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, February 13, 2005
- “Aliens in Our Midst: America is hardening its heart to refugees and immigrants,” Christianity Today, February 10, 2005
- “Anti-terror bill hides strictures vs. refugees,” Arizona Daily Star, February 10, 2005
- “REAL ID, Real Problems,” Washington Post editorial, February 9, 2005
- “Asylum Seekers Treated Poorly, U.S. Panel Says,” The New York Times, February 8, 2005
- “RIGHTS-US:Anti-Terror Bill Targets Asylum Seekers,” Inter Press Service News Agency, February 4, 2005
- “Faith-Based Groups Oppose Immigration Bill,” Associated Press, January 30, 2005
- “Sensenbrenner and Davis bills square off,” The Hill, February 1, 2005