HRF Welcomes DHS Plan to Appoint Senior Refugee Official
Following the recommendation by Human Rights First, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and thousands of advocates and organizations around the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced on July 13, 2005 that he will create a new senior refugee policy position within the Department of Homeland Security. This is a major victory for asylum seekers fleeing persecution, who continue to face mounting hurdles upon seeking refuge in the United States. The position will reside within the new Directorate of Policy, which will ultimately be led by an Under Secretary.
On August 19, 2005, Eleanor Acer, Director of the Asylum Program, wrote a letter to Secretary Chertoff commending his decision and setting out several recommendations to ensure that the new official is effective in advancing refugee protection. Click here to read this letter.
On November 16, 2005, 71 faith-based, human rights, and refugee organizations and academics sent a letter to Secretary Chertoff joining in these recommendations and urging the appointment of an official with extensive refugee protection expertise. Click here to read this sign-on letter.
Since the Department of Homeland Security took over asylum matters from the former INS in March 2003, Human Rights First has urged the Department to take steps to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are treated appropriately across the Department’s various different bureaus. In a January 2004 report on U.S. detention of asylum seekers, Human Rights First recommended that the Department create a high-level refugee protection position. We reiterated that request to Secretary Chertoff shortly after he was appointed as the new Secretary of the Department in early 2005, following the resignation of Tom Ridge.
In February 2002, a bi-partisan governmental commission – the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – also recommended that the Department create such a position. In fact, the creation of this position was the Commission’s number one recommendation. A broad coalition of faith-based and refugee assistance organizations have also joined in this recommendation.
The Secretary’s announcement was part of his “Six-Point Agenda” for the Department. In a press release, the Department stated that this agenda was the result of “a careful study of the department’s programs, policies, operations and structure.”
Background Regarding the Department of Homeland Security
On Saturday, March 1, 2003, the enforcement and services functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security. Unless the Administration, the new Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Congress take concrete steps, asylum seekers and refugees who now fall within the jurisdiction of the new Department will become increasingly more vulnerable as immigration services and enforcement functions are separated and as immigration functions are viewed narrowly as matters of security.
The mission of the Department of Homeland Security is set out in Section 101 of the Homeland Security Act. The Department’s mission includes: preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S., reducing the vulnerability of the U.S. to terrorism, and minimizing the damage from terrorist attacks. There is no stated objective of ensuring that the U.S. lives up to its obligations to refugees and asylum seekers, obligations that stem from both U.S. law and international conventions as well as its tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution.
The urgent need for the Department to appreciate this objective is underscored by the fact that the Department has chosen, as two of its initial decisions relating to asylum seekers, to take steps that seek to subject asylum seekers to extended periods of detention based on their nationality and
to deprive these asylum seekers of the chance to have a meaningful review of the need for detention in their individual cases. First, on the eve of war with Iraq, the Department took the extraordinary step of announcing to the press a plan to detain asylum seekers of Iraqi and other unspecified nationalities for extended periods of time, a step which effectively labels refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. as threats to our security. This announcement
was quickly followed by the Department’s decision to ask the Attorney General to issue a ruling depriving Haitian asylum seekers (also asserted to be threats to “national security”) of the right to have immigration judges make individualized determinations concerning the need for their detention.
There is no innate contradiction between the new department’s security objective and the broader government interest in providing a welcoming environment for newcomers to the United States, and in particular shelter from persecution. The transfer of responsibilities to the new department however requires an express recognition of the positive contribution refugees make to this country, and a clear mission to safeguard these U.S. values in its pursuit of enhanced security. The conduct of fair refugee and asylum procedures and the maintenance of security are objectives that can both be met. The former need not be sacrificed to the latter.