The Immigration Reform Debate: Asylum Seekers and Others Remain at Risk
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate failed to reach agreement on a compromise immigration reform bill that would have given many undocumented immigrants the chance to work legally in this country. Some Senators have said that they will continue efforts to reach an agreement when Congress returns from its recess on April 24.
The Senate's heated debate over competing approaches to border security and undocumented workers has largely ignored several egregious proposals that, if enacted, would gravely threaten refugees and other immigrants seeking asylum. The current compromise proposal, for example, would allow a refugee who has fled political, religious, or other persecution to be:
- Deported back to his country of persecution while his case is pending before a U.S. federal court;
- Prosecuted and barred from asylum if she uses a false document to escape to this country; and
- Jailed without due process, potentially for extended periods of time.
On the positive side, Senators have shelved a judicial review proposal that would have funneled all immigration and asylum appeals to the Federal Circuit Court (the court that hears patent appeals) and limited access to the federal courts through an unfair screening process. But the bill includes an extreme provision that would eliminate "stays of removal" – allowing an asylum seeker to be deported back to persecution while his or her case is on appeal before a U.S. court.
During the Congressional recess, advocates for asylum seekers and other immigrants are continuing to fight these and other unjust provisions. Human Rights First, together with a diverse group of faith-based, human rights, and refugee assistance organizations, has urged the Senate to oppose provisions that would harm refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable populations.
For more details on the provisions that impact asylum seekers, as well as the larger immigration reform debate, click here
For sample materials highlighting concerns about detention provisions in the various immigration proposals, see the Detention Watch Network's web site
Senators Lieberman and Brownback Champion Amendment to Implement Recommendations of USCIRF
More than a year ago, in February 2005, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a comprehensive report on the treatment of asylum seekers in expedited removal and detention. The Commission found that asylum seekers were detained inappropriately in prison-like facilities, creating a serious risk of psychological harm. It also found wide variations in parole rates, so that asylum seekers in some parts of the country are detained for lengthy periods of time.
While the Commission recommended a series of changes to improve the treatment of asylum seekers who are detained in this country, the Department of Homeland Security has not made those critical reforms to its detention process.
Major reforms are clearly necessary, yet the various immigration proposals currently pending in Congress contain provisions that could increase the detention of asylum seekers and other immigrants. The Senate's "compromise" bill, for instance, expands expedited removal and mandatory detention, and aims to overturn limits on indefinite detention.
Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Sam Brownback (R-KN) have advanced a bipartisan amendment to improve the plight of detained asylum seekers and implement the USCIRF recommendations. The amendment would provide safeguards to ensure that asylum seekers who merit release are not unnecessarily detained, affording them the same opportunity to have an immigration judge review their detention that other immigrants have. The amendment also supports alternatives to detention, legal orientation presentations, and less restrictive detention facilities.
Human Rights First supports the Lieberman-Brownback amendment, alongside a wide range of faith-based, human rights, and refugee assistance organizations. Click here
to read the April 6 letter to U.S. Senators from 80 groups and individuals expressing concern about the detention of asylum seekers and urging Senators to support the Lieberman-Brownback amendment.
New Chief Immigration Judge Announced
On April 6, the Department of Justice confirmed the appointment of David L. Neal as Chief Immigration Judge, replacing Michael Creppy, who has held the position for twelve years. Mr. Neal, currently an assistant chief immigration judge, worked as an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. He has also served as director of policy analysis for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, as an aide to Senator Sam Brownback (R-KN), and as a staff attorney for the Board of Immigration Appeals. In May, Chief Judge Michael Creppy will move to head the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer, which oversees employer sanctions and document fraud.
Supreme Court Releases Decision on Thomas v. Gonzalez
On April 17, the Supreme Court released a per curiam opinion reversing and remanding the case of Thomas v. Gonzalez
on limited procedural grounds. The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program has provided a summary of the decision, explaining that it is not a setback for family or social group jurisprudence, but only a limited application of existing procedural remand standards. The Court remanded the case under INS v. Ventura
but did not expand or modify the existing Ventura remand rule. Click here
for more information.
UNHCR Reports Asylum Applications Drop
Last month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released preliminary figures showing that the number of asylum applicants arriving in industrialized countries has fallen by half since 2001. Asylum applications in Canada and the United States have dropped by 54 percent, and Australia and New Zealand receive 75 percent fewer asylum seekers than they did in 2001. "These figures show that talk in the industrialized countries of a growing asylum problem does not reflect the reality," said António Guterres, head of the U.N. agency. "Indeed, industrialized countries should be asking themselves whether by imposing ever tighter restrictions on asylum seekers they are not closing their doors to men, women and children fleeing persecution."
Top sending countries in 2005 were Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo), Russia (including Chechnya), China, Iraq, and Turkey. Despite the severe percentage decrease, the countries still receiving the greatest absolute number of asylum seekers were France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria.