Protecting Refugees Who Seek
Asylum in the United States
Deserving refugees are at risk under a flawed immigration law that passed the U.S. Congress in 1996. Some have been wrongly deported – without even being given a chance to apply for asylum – under a provision of the law, known as “Expedited Removal.” Expedited removal gives INS inspectors at our borders the power to make life and death deportation decisions. Previously only trained immigration judges were entrusted with that power.
As a result of the 1996 law’s “mandatory detention” provisions thousands of asylum seekers have also been detained in prisons and detention facilities, while thousands of others have had their asylum claims rejected because the law imposes a new unrealistic and unfair filing deadline.
Because of these unfair provisions, deserving refugees have been denied asylum and in some cases returned to the very countries where their lives were in peril.
“Expedited removal,” a key feature of the 1996 law, gives INS agents new powers to deport those who arrive at the border without valid travel documents. Under expedited removal, INS agents also have the power to deport people even if their documents are valid, but the INS agent merely suspects the documents might not be valid.
But many asylum seekers arrive without valid passports or visas precisely because they have escaped under duress, or their papers have been confiscated – like many Jews attempting to flee Europe during World War II, or like the Kosovar Albanians who were stripped of their identification papers as part of the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign.
Even for refugees who are in fear for their lives, it can be difficult to plead for asylum as soon as they step off a plane. Communication at the border is often hard. Many refugees, especially victims of torture, rape or war horrors, find it extremely difficult to speak of their experiences immediately upon arrival. Interviews are rapid, interviewers are sometimes hostile, and inadequate translation often makes communication even tougher. In such conditions, mistaken deportations have occurred and are inevitable.
The 1996 law also states that asylum seekers who are not deported through expedited removal are subject to “mandatory detention.”
Detainees can be held in prison-like conditions for weeks, months, and even, sometimes, years while their asylum applications are reviewed. On any given day several thousand asylum seekers are locked behind bars in the United States, in conditions that are as harsh, and sometimes even harsher, than those of convicted criminals.
But asylum seekers are not criminals. Asylum-seeking is a long and difficult process, with many safeguards to flag and exclude people who might be dangerous. All asylum applicants are fingerprinted, their fingerprints are checked by the FBI, and their names are compared against a series of databases and watch lists maintained by the INS and the State Department. This is much more scrutiny than we apply to businesspeople, to students, or to tourists entering the United States.
Asylum seekers deserve a welcoming hand, not handcuffs. As Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) put it, “Asylees, by definition, represent the best of American values. Often, they are people who have stood alone, at great personal cost, against hostile governments for principles which are fundamental to us such as political and religious liberty.”
Human Rights First is working with Members of Congress in both parties to pass legislation that would right the wrongs of the 1996 law and protect refugees from deportation and imprisonment that can put their lives at risk. In the House of Representatives, Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ), Howard Berman (D-CA), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and William Delahunt (D-MA) introduced the Refugee Protection Act, H.R. 4074, in March 2002. And in the Senate, the Refugee Protection Act, S 1131, is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT), Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN)
- ends the use of expedited removal except when there is an immigration emergency as declared by the Attorney General;
- provides procedural protections even when expedited removal is used during an emergency situation to minimize the chances of wrongly turning refugees away;
- clarifies the law to make it clear that while asylum seekers may be detained when necessary, detention is not mandatory and that asylum seekers can be paroled while their claims are reviewed;
- promotes the use of alternatives to detention and provides for review by an immigration judge of a decision to detain an asylum seeker who requests parole;
- ensures full and equitable access to religious services, religious materials, and religious counseling appropriate to a detained asylum seeker’s religious beliefs. eliminates the current one-year time limit on applying for asylum; and
- eliminates the asylee adjustment cap that places a limit of 10,000 asylees each fiscal year whose status may be adjusted to that of a lawful permanent resident.