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October 31, 2001

Asylum News 1

Refugees blocked from entering the United States; quota to be cut

Since September 11, the flow of refugees into the United States has virtually stopped, blocking as many as 20,000 refugees who had already been exhaustively investigated and fingerprinted as a prerequisite to being granted refuge. There are two reasons for the virtual moratorium: security concerns, and the fact that the White House has not yet set a new annual quota for refugees. Worse, it seems that President Bush may follow the trend of the Clinton Administration, by cutting the quota down to 70,000. By comparison, the U.S. admitted 200,000 refugees a year during the Reagan Administration. Anti-terrorism Legislation In the wake of the horrific September 11 bombings, the Bush administration sought greatly increased power to summarily detain non-citizens, and proposed a bill that would have allowed for indefinite detention of any non-U.S. citizen, without charge. On October 26, after a month of negotiations, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which would allow the Attorney General to detain any non-citizen suspected of involvement in terrorism, for up to seven days without charge, a longer period of detention without charge than U.S. law has ever allowed. After seven days, if the detainee is not released the government must bring either criminal charges, or charges of an immigration status violation. Detainees could still be held for long periods after that, if the U.S. government finds that it cannot deport them (for example because their country of origin will not take them back). We will be vigorously monitoring the Attorney General's use of his broad new power especially since, even without it, he has detained nearly 1000 people since September 11 without bringing criminal charges against any of them as far as we know. The Refugee Protection Act As you know, in 1996 Congress made a number of negative changes to our immigration law. One change jeopardizes those who seek asylum in the United States. Before the new law took effect, all asylum seekers had access to a procedure that afforded them basic due process - the right to present their cases before an immigration judge. Under the new system of "expedited removal" begun in 1996, INS inspectors at an airport or border port now have the power to make life or death decisions previously entrusted to judges. Expedited removal allows the immediate deportation - without a hearing - of those who arrive without valid documents, as many asylum seekers are forced to do. INS inspectors can even summarily deport persons whose documents the inspector suspects were obtained under false pretenses. These procedures are so summary and lacking in safeguards that mistakes are inevitable. The 1996 changes to immigration law also subject asylum seekers to mandatory detention. Those who are not immediately turned away are often imprisoned for weeks, months, and even, sometimes, years before they are granted asylum or deported. In 1996 a number of refugee protection and human rights organizations worked together to oppose expedited removal. Since then, Washington representatives of those groups and others have been informally working together seeking passage of legislation to end or limit the use of expedited removal. Out of that effort came the Refugee Protection Act, first introduced in November 1999 during the last Congress. As described below, an expanded Refugee Protection Act was recently introduced in the Senate. Prospects for Passage of the Refugee Protection Act Because of the 9/11 attacks it has not been possible to affirmatively lobby Congress on the Refugee Protection Act this fall. Before the attacks, introduction of the Refugee Protection Act was expected in the House in October. That will not be possible until the second session of the 107th Congress, which begins in late January of 2002. Because of the great progress made in building support for the Refugee Protection Act prior to 9/11 and because asylum seekers have thus far not become an issue in the attacks or the debates over measures needed to prevent further attacks, it may be possible to move the Refugee Protection Act forward during the late winter and spring of next year. Refugee Protection Act introduced in the Senate, after successful hearing The Refugee Protection Act was introduced in the Senate in August, as S. 1311. Original sponsors are: Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Sen.Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL). Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) is a co-sponsors. On May 3, the Senate Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing at which several refugees testified in such a moving way that the eyes of then Subcommittee Chairman Senator Sam Brownback, (R-KS), filled with tears. Patrick Mkhizi, one of three refugees who testified, described how he watched the killing of his father, and how he was separated from his mother and sister, whom he hasn't seen since, and then explained that when he arrived in the United States and attempted to seek asylum, he was summarily put on a plane back out of the country. He was saved from deportation, he said, only because the airplane crew refused to take off with him on board - but then he spent three and a half years in detention in the United States. He is now working as an auto technician and going to school. It was when Mkhizi spoke of having been recently selected as "employee of the month" and "student of the month" that Sen. Brownback was particularly moved. Detailed description of the Refugee Protection Act The Refugee Protection Act would reverse several unjust provisions of immigration law that were enacted in 1996, especially "expedited removal," under which Immigration and Naturalization Service officers can summarily expel non-U.S. citizens who arrive in the United States without travel documents, or with documents that the INS officers suspect are fraudulent. (Many people fleeing repressive governments are forced to travel without papers, either because they flee in haste, or because the persecuting governments will not issue them documents.) Specifically, the Act:
  • Ends the use of expedited removal, except in cases of 'immigration emergency' declared by the Attorney General.
  • Provides procedural protections when expedited removal is used during an immigration emergency, to make it less likely that refugees will be wrongly turned away.
  • Makes it less likely that an asylum seeker will be imprisoned upon arrival in the United States. The Act states that asylum seekers may be detained when necessary, but that detention is not mandatory, and asylum seekers may be paroled while their claims are reviewed. At the moment, many asylum seekers are handcuffed and sometimes shackled to benches as soon as they arrive, and then detained - sometimes for a period as long as several years - while their applications are being considered.
  • Promotes the use of alternatives to detention.
  • Provides for review by an immigration judge of a decision to detain an asylum seeker who requests parole. Eliminates the current one-year time limit on applying for asylum.
Building Support for the Refugee Protection Act Sign On Letter: Just before the 9/11 attacks a joint sign on letter was about to be delivered to the offices of Senators who are not yet sponsors of the Refugee Protection Act urging them to sponsor. The letter is from a large numbers of national, state, and local organizations. If your organization has not signed on and you may want to do so, email Gene Guerrero and ask for a copy of the letter. The letter will be delivered to Senate office early next year. Op-ed Campaign: For the past several months a number of organizations have been working together to have op-eds supporting the Refugee Protection Act appear in newspapers across the country. As a result of this effort so far about 20 op-eds, columns, or editorials have appeared. These are enormously helpful in showing Members of Congress that there is significant support for refugee protection across the nation. Regular conference calls are held to coordinate this effort. Sample op-eds are available as are media professionals who can help edit and place the op-ed pieces. What we need are people around the country who can sign such op-eds - former refugees, refugee advocates, prominent people, etc. For further information or to help email Gene Guerrero.