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Home / Press Release / Secretary Kelly Urged to Uphold U.S. Obligations to Protect Refugees
February 07, 2017

Secretary Kelly Urged to Uphold U.S. Obligations to Protect Refugees

New York City—Following testimony today by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly before the House Homeland Security Committee, Human Rights First urged DHS to adhere to U.S. law and treaty commitments to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution. The organization noted that the existing screening process for refugees is rigorous and extreme, and cautioned that the United States must not look to persecuting governments to approve the cases of refugees who are fleeing from these very countries. 

“Refugees are already more thoroughly vetted than any other category of traveller to the United States, and we hope that Secretary Kelly has an opportunity to learn more about the details of that process in the coming weeks. This process is far more extensive than what is in place for migrants crossing borders into Europe. It involves several interviews and screenings by multiple security agencies,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “The notion that repressive regimes like Syria should somehow vet or approve refugee cases for resettlement in the United States is not only flawed but also dangerous. Setting up this kind of system would leave the door open for persecuting governments to block certain citizens from safe escape or falsify documentation for political reasons."

In his testimony today, Secretary Kelly called for expanded vetting of those seeking entry to our country including for refugees. The hearing did not include a detailed discussion of the extensive and rigorous vetting process already in place for refugees, including Syrian refugees. Human Rights First notes that the country can both safeguard its security and protect vulnerable refugees.

The U.S. vetting process is significantly different from, and more intense than, any vetting done by European authorities at their borders. Moreover, adding any enhancements if needed to U.S. vetting processes did not require a dramatic halt to refugee resettlement and travel from the targeted Muslim-majority countries, and certainly did not require an indefinite ban on the resettlement of Syrian refugees.    

The United States’ refugee vetting procedures are widely recognized as the most stringent in the world by former U.S. military leaders and former U.S. national security officials, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations. The United States—including DHS officers—gathers extensive information and documentation from refugees during the resettlement consideration process. This information is provided through a series of interviews, including in person interviews conducted by DHS officers with applicants abroad. The documentary information provided often includes passports, other evidence of identity, school records and significant documentation relating to the refugees’ time spent living in refugee camps.

Secretary Kelly also broadly defended President Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees, an order which signals that the Trump Administration plans to limit resettlement of Muslim refugees from Muslim majority countries. Human Rights First notes that, given the current geographic context of the global refugee crisis at this time, the majority of the world’s refugees have fled from Muslim majority countries

“We urge General Kelly to take steps to ensure that Muslim refugees who are victims of political, religious and other forms of persecution are provided access without discrimination to U.S. refugee resettlement programs,” said Acer. 

Human Rights First notes that Secretary Kelly rightly flagged the importance of adding immigration court capacity so that immigration cases are not delayed for years.

In his written testimony, Secretary Kelly made several statements which raise concerns regarding the administration’s plans with respect to U.S. protection of refugees at home, in particular in connection with the asylum system, immigration detention, parole and interdiction. He stated without explanation that “DHS is immediately taking all appropriate action to ensure that the parole and asylum provisions of federal immigration law consistently applied with the requirements of the law, and not exploited to prevent the removal of otherwise removable aliens.” The secretary also stated that DHS can quickly return "interdicted aliens to their countries of origin, avoiding the costlier processes required if they successfully enter the United States,” without referencing any mechanisms to assure protection from return for any individuals at risk of persecution, torture or trafficking if returned to Cuba, China, Haiti, or another country. 

Human Rights First urges that all DHS actions – including those relating to asylum, immigration detention, parole and interdiction – must comply with and respect with the provisions of U.S. laws and U.S. treaty obligations, including the Refugee Protocol and Convention Against Torture.  

“The truth is that the U.S. asylum system is already riddled with a gauntlet of often insurmountable barriers that make it difficult for refugees to successfully navigate our asylum system. The United States must make sure that its asylum and immigration enforcement measures comply with U.S. law and treaty commitments and reflect, rather than undermine, this country’s global leadership,” added Acer.   

For more information or to speak with Acer contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at [email protected]