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February 24, 2005

Asylum News 36

New Homeland Security Secretary Should Make Reforms for Refugees

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Recommends Changes Urge New DHS Secretary to Help Refugees On Tuesday, February 15, Judge Michael Chertoff was sworn in as the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Chertoff now has the authority to make critical changes that will improve the treatment of refugees, including those who are jailed in U.S. immigration detention facilities. High on the new Secretary’s list should be the much needed reforms recommended by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its ground-breaking report which was issued on February 8. Findings of U.S. Religious Freedom Commission The Commission is a federal government commission, created by Congress in 1998, to monitor religious freedom around the world and advise the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress on religious freedom. The Commission was authorized by Congress in 2003 to undertake a study relating to asylum seekers in “expedited removal,” the deportation process that allows immigration inspectors or border patrol officers to order deportations, a power previously entrusted only to immigration judges. The Commission’s study found that:
  • There are serious problems in the implementation of the expedited process that put asylum seekers at risk of improper return - in 15% of cases observed by the experts, people who expressed a fear of return were not given a chance to be interviewed by an asylum officer;
  • Most asylum seekers are held in jails or jail-like facilities that the Commission found inappropriate for asylum seekers. These conditions create a serious risk of psychological harm to asylum seekers;
  • About 32% of asylum seekers are jailed for 90 days or more; the average length of detention in these jail-like facilities is 64 days. Release rates vary widely across the country, with parole rates as low as 0.5% in New Orleans, 8.4% in New York and 3.8% in Newark, New Jersey;
  • Asylum seekers who did not have an attorney had a much lower chance of being granted asylum than those who did;
  • There are significant variations in the rate at which immigration judges grant asylum, and the approval of asylum appeals in expedited cases has dropped significantly since changes were made by the Department of Justice at the immigration appeals board in 2002.
The Commission also found that there are serious impediments to communication within the Department of Homeland Security and it is exceedingly difficult to resolve inter-bureau issues. The Commission’s Recommendations The Commission made a series of critical recommendations, including that:
  • DHS should create an office, headed by a high-level official, to address and coordinate asylum issues that cut across the Department.
  • DHS should not detain asylum seekers in inappropriate jail-like facilities but instead in “non-jail like” facilities like a model facility in Broward County, Florida.
  • DHS should issue regulations to ensure that asylum seekers are released from detention when they meet the relevant parole standards, including establishing identity and no security risk.
Read the Commission’s full findings and recommendations. Human Rights First has documented the difficulties that refugees face in these expedited procedures and in immigration jails, most recently in its January 2004 report In Liberty’s Shadow: U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers in the Era of Homeland Security. Human Rights First has recommended that the Department of Homeland Security create a high-level refugee protection position and formal regulations to ensure that refugees who seek asylum are not needlessly jailed. The Commission, after extensive study, made the same recommendations. New Legislation, Passed by House of Representatives, Puts Refugees at Further Risk The Commission’s report also shows just how difficult it already is for refugees who flee from religious and other persecution to navigate their way through the U.S. asylum system. Ironically, the House of Representatives has just passed legislation that will make it even more difficult for refugees to get asylum and will allow them to be deported back into the hands of their persecutors while their cases are still pending before U.S. federal courts. The proposed legislation, called the REAL ID Act (H.R. 418), would give immigration officers and immigration judges broad leeway to deny a refugee asylum based on alleged "statements" taken in unreliable circumstances – the very kind of statements that the Commission, in its report, concluded were “unreliable and incomplete.” The Commission’s experts specifically found that immigration judges frequently cited to these unreliable documents when denying asylum. Please encourage your colleagues to join us in this effort, by signing up for this newsletter.