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March 20, 2006

Asylum News 39

The Senate Debate – Proposals Would Harm Refugees

iconOver the last two weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee has debated the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, legislation introduced by Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) as the starting point for discussions on immigration reform in the Senate. While much of the Committee's discussions concerned broader questions of immigration reform and border security, some provisions in the bill would put those who have fled persecution at risk of being deported back to the very countries from which they escaped. The bill would, for instance, prevent many refugees from getting mistaken asylum denials corrected by the U.S. federal courts. It also contains provisions that would criminalize asylum seekers who fall out of status and others that would increase detention of asylum seekers. Another extreme provision would jail a refugee for 15 years and then bar him from asylum if he had used false documents to flee to safety in the United States. Although several senators have crafted an amendment to this provision to allow an exception for asylum seekers, the parameters of this exception remain unclear. In response to pressure from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Judiciary Committee members are pushing to produce a deal on immigration reform and border security by March 27. Currently, negotiations are taking place at the staff level to address the most contentious issue in the debate: what to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. A majority of Judiciary Committee members appear willing to endorse a bill that includes provisions from a proposal offered last year by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA). By combining border security with a guest-worker plan from the McCain-Kennedy bill, Chairman Specter hopes to avoid a showdown with Majority Leader Frist. Despite these efforts, Senator Frist on March 16 introduced his immigration reform bill, S. 2454, which he described as "based on the consensus enforcement, visa reform, and immigration litigation reform" provisions from Chairman Specter's proposal. The bill contains some of the same provisions from the Specter bill that put asylum seekers at risk. It is expected that Senator Frist will actively push S. 2454 unless a majority of Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee endorse the Specter bill. To learn more, read Human Rights First's letter to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and visit our web site.

Pilgrim's Progress – Again

On March 2, Human Rights First and other organizations filed an amicus brief urging the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to rehear its prior decision in a case involving an asylum seeker who had fled religious persecution in China. In the case, Gu v. Gonzales, the court had found that detention, beating, forced confession, and other acts did not amount to persecution. The court's decision also rested on the assumption that religious persecution can and should be avoided by practicing a prohibited religion in secrecy. Several legal advocacy organizations joined Human Rights First as "amici" in filing the brief, including the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Jubilee Campaign USA, and Public Counsel. Laura A. Wytsma of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP served as pro bono counsel representing the amici participants. This case is part of a broader series of claims against the U.S. government for inappropriate handling of persecution cases. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom intervened in the case of another Chinese asylum seeker, in the Fifth Circuit case of Li v. Gonzales. As the New York Times observed in its November 2005 editorial on the Li case – aptly titled "A Pilgrim's Progress" – "the promises engraved on the Statue of Liberty deserve better representation."

Harvard Issues Report on Impact of Overly Broad Terrorism Bars on Burmese Refugees

On March 8, Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic and Immigration and Refugee Clinic issued a report that found that thousands of legitimate Burmese refugees were at risk of being labeled "terrorists" by the United States and barred from resettlement as refugees under broad provisions of U.S. law. These statutory provisions, contained in the Patriot Act and the REAL ID Act, bar from asylum those who have provided "material support" to a wide range of groups. In its press release, the Harvard clinic noted that the statutory provisions are so overly broad that they encompass activities of groups that defend themselves from immediate physical harm, human rights violations, and genocide, including groups supported by the United States; and would even apply to someone like Nelson Mandela. The study was based on extensive field research and interviews in Thailand and Malaysia. To read the March 8 New York Times article about material support and the Harvard study, click here. To read a March 18 Washington Post editorial on material support, click here.

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