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March 14, 2016

Bill Would Diminish Ability of United States to Resettle Refugee Victims of Mass Atrocities

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today urged members of Congress to reject legislation that would severely hamper the United States’ ability to provide safety for those fleeing violence and persecution around the world and would discourage the integration of resettled refugees. Legislation introduced today by Representatives Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) would also change the definition of a refugee in ways that could make it harder for victims of mass atrocities to win protection in the United States.

“This legislation is mean-spirited and counter-productive.  At a time when promoting the integration of refugees and other immigrants should be our national focus, this bill seeks instead to maintain resettled refugees in a state of legal instability for years after their arrival,” said Human Rights First’s Jennifer Quigley. “It would allow any state governor, state legislature, or municipality to veto the resettlement of refugees in their area, making it impossible for the federal government to carry out refugee resettlement in a planned fashion.” 

Today’s legislation would delay by three years the ability for a refugee to obtain permanent legal status and citizenship, during which they would have no assurance that they will be allowed to remain in the United States; three years later they will be required to prove all over again that they met the definition of a refugee.  This process of re-examination, traumatic for refugees who have already been forced to recount what are often very painful stories, would also consume enormous amounts of scarce government resources.  Such protracted uncertainty is harmful to refugees and their children, who need a sense of lasting welcome and stability after years of fear and upheaval.  It also makes it harder for refugees to contribute to their new communities, as employers, lenders, and the licensing authorities of several professions are often not willing to work with refugees who do not yet have “green cards.” 

The legislation would require the termination of protection for any refugee who returns to his or her home country for any amount of time and for any reason, regardless of whether the person in fact still has a well-founded fear of persecution there.  It would also require the prioritization of cases of refugees fleeing religious persecution in countries that are deemed to be “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom—but only if the refugees in question belong to a minority religion in that country, which would lead to bizarre and unjust results in many cases.

“This legislation is an abdication of the United States’ historic role as a leader in resettling refugees,” noted Quigley. “The bill would cap the annual admissions of refugees at 60,000, an extremely low number and entirely inappropriate for the role the United States should be playing in the current global refugee crisis."

The bill also includes a number of constitutionally-suspect provisions whereby Congress would give to state and local jurisdictions the power to veto the resettlement of refugees at any time, decisions the Constitution grants to the federal government.

Finally, in a measure that would affect both refugees being resettled to the United States and those seeking asylum from within the country, the bill would bar from refugee protection any person fleeing violence in his or her country “if that violence is not specifically directed at the person.”  U.S. law already requires refugees to show that they fled their country out of fear of either violence or persecution.  Requiring that refugees show that the violence they fear would be directed at them individually—that they would be singled out—goes against longstanding rules of refugee law and would have the perverse effect of making it harder for victims of some of the worst and most widespread human rights violations to be resettled in the United States. Syrian refugees who are being bombed by their own government because they are seen as supporting the opposition, for example, would be unable to find protection in the United States under these rules.

Last week Human Rights First released a new report “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership," that details the deteriorating conditions facing Syrian refugees across the region, the backlogs hampering U.S. progress toward meeting its commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, and the impact of the failure to effectively address the refugees crisis on the stability of front-line refugee hosting states.  The report’s findings and recommendations are based on a recent research trip to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where Human Rights First staff met with refugees, aid organizations, resettlement experts and others in the region. 

The report also outlines the extensive vetting and security clearance process, the most rigorous process applied to any traveling to the United States, used to screen Syrian refugees before they are admitted to the United States. In a December 2015 letter from a bipartisan group of 20 former U.S. national security advisors, CIA directors, secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, confirm this rigorous vetting and express that failing to provide refuge to those fleeing violence would undermine the United States' core objective of combating terrorism.  This bill would make it harder for the United States to respond to these urgent needs.

For more information or to speak with Quigley, contact Corinne Duffy at [email protected] or 202-370-3319.