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July 26, 2017

House Bill Would Return Persecuted Refugees to Danger

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today urged members of the House Judiciary Committee to reject the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act when it marks up the legislation today. The bill would severely undermine access to protection for genuine refugees.  

“The proposed legislation does nothing to enhance the integrity of our asylum system, but instead puts individuals, particularly women and children, at grave risk of return to persecution, trafficking, and death in their home or third countries,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “Instead, this bill is a disgraceful attempt to evade U.S. refugee protection responsibilities and foist them on to other countries. Not only would this effort undermine U.S. global leadership, but it would set a poor example for the countries hosting the vast majority of the world’s refugees. The bill would make it even more difficult for refugees to receive asylum in our already rigorous asylum system and leave vulnerable children, families, and other individuals at risk of severe harm or death.” 

The bill seeks to make it harder for those fleeing persecution and torture to file for asylum in the United States, a process already fraught with obstacles. Several groups of particularly vulnerable individuals—including children, women, and LGBTQ asylum seekers—would be disproportionately impacted by certain provisions, which essentially eliminate protection for refugees who have been victims of crimes in their home countries. The bill attempts to eliminate the statutory basis for release on parole, which would leave asylum seekers detained in violation of U.S. treaty obligations, and held in jails and facilities with conditions similar to jails despite the existence of more cost-effective and humane alternative measures that result in compliance and appearance at hearings. The bill also seeks to ban federal government-funded counsel, including for unaccompanied children, some of whom are toddlers or even younger. 

Human Rights First, along with 73 other rights and immigration groups, sent a letter to members of the committee today urging them to reject the legislation. Among many changes to law, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2017 would:

  • Raise the expedited removal screening standard to an unduly high level. The bill would require that an asylum seeker—in order to even be allowed to apply for asylum—not only show a “significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum” but also prove it is more likely than not that his or her statements are true—the standard for a full adjudication, not a summary screening interview. 
  • Appear to prevent arriving asylum seekers who have passed the credible fear screening process from being paroled from immigration detention, instead leaving them in jails and jail-like facilities for months or longer, even though there are more fiscally-prudent and humane alternatives that have been proven effective.
  • Deny asylum to large numbers of refugees based on transit or stays in countries where they had no legal status, or no lasting legal status, and to which they cannot be returned in most cases. This provision would seek to deny asylum to many refugees who have passed through Mexico, despite the risks and severe protection deficiencies there. In addition, refugees—who may have languished in a refugee camp for decades without the ability to legally work, access education or secure legal permanency—with valid claims would be left in a state of uncertainty, with no prospects for a durable solution and no secure future for themselves and their children.
  • Allow asylum applicants and unaccompanied children to be bounced to third countries (such as Mexico) despite the dangers and lack of protection from return to persecution there, and in the absence of any agreement between the United States and the countries in question for the reception of asylum seekers.
  • Categorically deny asylum and withholding of removal to refugees targeted for criminal harm—including rape and killing—based on their membership in a particular social group in their countries of origin. This extraordinarily broad provision would deny protection to asylum seekers who have been beaten for being gay, who have suffered horrific domestic abuse, or who have been treated as property by virtue of their status as women, to name but a few examples. It would also effectively eliminate asylum eligibility or withholding of removal for asylum seekers who have been victims of or who fear persecution related to gang violence in their home country.  
  • State that the government not bear expense for counsel. The bill also states that in no instance will the federal government bear expense for counsel for anyone in removal or appellate proceedings. Children – including toddlers - the mentally disabled, and other vulnerable people cannot represent themselves in our complex immigration system. 

Last week Human Rights First released a new report assessing the dangers facing refugees in Mexico in the wake of proposals from the Trump Administration and Congress to block refugees passing through Mexico from seeking protection in the United States. The analysis, “Dangerous Territory: Mexico Still Not Safe for Refugees” finds that migrants and refugees in Mexico face risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, and trafficking, and that Mexican authorities routinely deport individuals to their home countries regardless of whether they fear return to persecution and the country’s human rights obligations.  

Human Rights First notes that when Congress—with strong bipartisan support—passed the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States codified its commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol. Under those treaties, states can’t return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or reject potential refugees at the border. The United States is also a party to the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits governments from sending people to places where they would be in danger of being tortured, and to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and migrants. Instead of turning away those seeking protection, the United States should be doing more to ensure their protection claims are properly assessed and due process is safeguarded. 

“At a time when the world faces the largest refugee crisis in history, this bill sends a dangerous message to other nations, including those who host the overwhelming majority refugees: that the United States intends to shirk its responsibility to those fleeing violence and persecution,” added Acer. 

For more information or to speak with Acer, contact Corinne Duffy at 202-370-3319 or DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org.