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January 09, 2015

New Year, New Congress: What to Watch on Refugee Protection

As Congress enters its 114th session, human rights must take the spotlight. This blog series will address what we at Human Rights First believe should take top priority in Washington in the next year.

 As the hyper-politicized debate on immigration continues, protecting refugees is one area where all Americans should agree that bipartisan action will allow us to live up to the American ideal of providing sanctuary for those who seek refuge from persecution and violence. This year, Congress must work to uphold the U.S. legacy of bipartisan support for refugees by:

1. Ensuring fair and timely immigration court hearings.

The court system that adjudicates asylum cases is in a state of crisis. A lack of adequate resources to properly process and manage immigration cases, including asylum cases, has resulted in a massive backlog. Without increased funding and staffing this reality will continue to be the status quo.

This backlog has a large negative economic impact. With each passing day, taxpayer dollars are spent on staff to maintain records of cases awaiting trial, office space to house them, and completing biometric security checks as many as three times over, since the results expire every fifteen months. This price tag for taxpayers could more wisely be spent clearing out the backlog.

Congress should provide the Department of Justice, specifically the Executive Office of Immigration Review, with sufficient resources to conduct timely and fair proceedings, including increasing appropriations funding to adequately staff immigration courts.

2. Eliminating the asylum filing deadline.

One of the most harmful restrictions imposed upon asylum seekers is the one-year deadline for filing an asylum application, which bars a refugee from asylum if his or her application is not filed within one year of arrival in the United States. Due to the challenges faced by many asylum seekers, including mental and physical trauma and fear for the safety of family members, many vulnerable asylum seekers fail to file within one year and are consequently barred from asylum because of this arbitrary procedural obstacle.

There is no evidence that the deadline requirement has effectively deterred fraud, confirming that it expends resources without helping uncover or deter fraud.

Last year the Senate eliminated the filing deadline in its comprehensive immigration reform bill. This year, Congress should again include elimination of the filing deadline in legislation.

3. Sustaining a demonstrable and reasonable standard for “credible fear” that is designed to assess bona fide refugees, rather than screen them out.

The “credible fear” screening process, intended to ensure that the United States upholds due process, does not grant asylum. But many in Congress have argued that credible fear screenings should be “strengthened” to weed those out of the system who may be committing fraud. In reality, there are already extensive security and fraud detection measures in place as part of the expedited removal and credible fear processes, including mandatory biographical and biometric checks and screenings against law enforcement and national security databases. These are the measures that deter and detect fraud.

Raising the credible fear standard is not a fraud detection nor deterrent measure—instead it prevents the United States from living up to its value of providing humanitarian relief for those in need of protection. Instead, Congress should appropriate funds to increase asylum office staffing and resources to conduct timely, in-person credible fear screening interviews and address backlogs, without diverting staff from conducting timely affirmative asylum interviews.

4. Strengthening the refugee resettlement program.

Action is needed by Congress to streamline the refugee resettlement process so it ensures a fair and efficient system and guarantees proper security measures are put in place.

A wide array of refugees globally are in need of resettlement—including Christians and other religious minorities who have fled from ISIS controlled areas in Syria and Iraq, victims of political and religious persecution, and vulnerable women at risk of rape or other violence. While only a small portion of the world’s refugees will be resettled, it is in the strategic interest of the United States to support and lead a strong global resettlement initiative. We cannot turn our back on this humanitarian crisis and let these people feel abandoned. Abandonment turns to resentment, which turns to hate, which ultimately threatens our own security.

In 2015, Congress should support a timely, robust and effective resettlement program through strong appropriations and legislation to improve resettlement, including helping refugees as they strive to attain self-sufficiency.