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July 12, 2005

Homeland Security to Create Senior Refugee Position

Human Rights First Welcomes Adoption of its Recommendation

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced today that he will create a new senior refugee policy position within the Department of Homeland Security. The position will reside within a new Directorate of Policy, which will ultimately be led by an Under Secretary.

"Secretary Chertoff should be commended for recognizing the need to improve the coordination of asylum policy across the Department's various bureaus," said Eleanor Acer, Director of Human Rights First's asylum program. "The United States has a long and proud tradition of providing refuge for people who flee from persecution and oppression, and it is essential for the Department to make clear that it will protect the lives of these people as it fulfills its other important responsibilities."

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; and we reiterated that request to Secretary Chertoff shortly after he was appointed as the new Secretary of the Department earlier this year.

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." [DHS Press Release; Secretary Chertoff's Remarks]

Acer noted that: "The person who is given this job will have a lot of work to do. Two high priorities will be to improve the treatment of asylum seekers held in U.S. jails and to ensure that women who flee from horrendous violence will receive protection in appropriate cases." The Department of Homeland Security has previously outlined its position on these cases in its brief in the leading case of Rodi Alvarado, a woman who fled from severe domestic violence in Guatemala.

"Ultimately however, whether or not this position will be effective, will depend on how much authority this position is given."