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Here’s a chance for us to renew our commitment to protect human rights

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the monumental Refugee Protection Act of 1980 marking a historic moment which created a legal status for asylum and a formal process for the resettling of refugees from around the world, affirming that the protection of all victims of persecution is an integral part of U.S. policy. Senator Edward Kennedy, who worked tirelessly for over a decade to secure the passage of this Act ensured an impartial and consistent system of asylum and resettlement for anyone

who is unable or unwilling to return to his country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

In the thirty years since the passage of the Refugee Protection Act, the U.S. has granted asylum to over half a million people and has been responsible for the resettlement of nearly two and a half million refugees. But these successes have been undermined by national security measures post 9/11 which have practically shut the resettlement system down, leading to President Obama having to sign a Presidential Determination authorizing the admission of 80,000 refugees in 2010 because of failures in the system.

In November 2009, a Human Rights First report reported that since 2001, over 18,000 refugees have faced delays or been denied asylum because of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the Real ID Act of 2005 that labeled them “terrorists”. Following 9/11, these acts expanded the scope of laws defining material support to terrorist activity so that thousands of men, women and children who had faced rebel armies and fought for democracy in their countries were denied asylum even while they had fought for causes supported by the U.S.

But this isn’t the only way the system has faltered. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers are locked into detention for months, sometimes years, while pursuing their asylum case. Like Jean Pierre Kamwa, who fought for democracy in Cameroon and facing severe mental and physical abuse came to seek protection in the United States, only to be locked up for four months in a windowless detention center in New Jersey, until he was granted asylum. But Jean Pierre was lucky because he got pro-bono help from a lawyer. Many are deported because they do not have enough access to information in substandard detention centers and are unable to explain their cases to an immigration judge adequately.

That’s what makes Senator Patrick Leahy’s introduction of the Refugee Protection Act 2010 so momentous. If passed, the legislation would strengthen legal protections for those seeking asylum in the United States and ensure that more people who deserve protection can benefit from it. Co-sponsored by Senators Carl Levin, Richard Durbin and Daniel Akaka, the bill addresses flaws in the current system including ensuring a nation-wide alternatives to detention program, access to counsel, medical care and family visits while in detention. The bill also eliminates the requirement that asylum applicants file a claim within one-year of arrival in the U.S. giving more leeway to those needing protection, protects particularly vulnerable asylum seekers like the LGBT community by ensuring they can pursue a claim even where their persecution is not socially visible, and modifies the material support and terrorism bars in the law.

While the bill rallies up support to pass the Senate, the National Immigrant Justice Center and 30 nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and academics are filing petitions with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice requesting similar regulations allowing the release of detained asylum seekers who pose no danger to the community so that these can be implemented on an administrative level as well while the bill is being debated.

The act would go a long way to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the U.N. Refugee convention and provide a safe haven for the persecuted so call on your senators to support it.

Photo courtesy of humanrightsfirst.org

Human Rights First report tells us that broad immigration laws label bona fide asylum seekers as “terrorists”

AsylumReportAccording to a Human Rights First report released last week, since 2001, over 18,000 refugees and asylum seekers who pose no threat to U.S. security have not received protection from the U.S. government due to the overly broad provisions of Immigration law, and the expansive way that they have been interpreted by federal immigration agencies. The report, entitled, ‘Denial and Delay: The Impact of the Immigration Law’s “Terrorism Bars” on Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the United States’, outlines the pervasive, unintended consequences of the “terrorism” provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and provides some recommendations for swift and comprehensive solutions to the problem.

Out of the 18,000 cases, 7,500 are in limbo after having been put on hold or delayed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Most of these are people who are already in the U.S. and have filed for permanent residency. However, the delays are thwarting efforts of these people to bring over their family members, many of whom remain in stuck in very dangerous and difficult situations in their home countries.

While this situation can be traced back to provisions instituted in the 1990s, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the 2005 Real ID Act expanded the scope of laws dealing with “terrorist organizations”, “terrorist activity” and “material support” in ways that ensured that thousands of men, women and children who comprised of people who were abducted by rebel armies, who fought for democracy in their countries, and doctors who provided medical care to the wounded in accordance with their occupational obligation, were denied asylum even while they had fought for causes that the U.S. supports.

At the center of the report lie personal stories of those affected by these provisions. The most striking is that of a young girl who was kidnapped by a rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forced to take part in armed conflict, and threatened for her work against the use of children in armed conflict. Her application for asylum has been on hold for a year because of her previous involvement in armed conflict.

In another case, a refugee from Burundi was detained in U.S. county jails for 20 months because DHS and the immigration judge that heard his case decided that he had provided “material support” to a rebel group when the rebels had, in fact, forcibly robbed him of 4 dollars and food. Sachin Karmakar, a Bangladeshi man who advocated for religious minorities and was facing persecution for his work, was granted asylum but not permanent residency because he was involved in Bangladesh’s 1971 fight for independence from India.

Calling for reform, the report details that although DHS has been trying to deal with this situation by granting discretionary waivers, it has been piecemeal and is clearly not enough. They suggest that Congress amends the notion of “Tier III terrorist organizations” and the definition of “terrorist activity” to be more specific and appropriate.

The INA’s sloppy definition of a “Tier III terrorist organization” is causing groups that the U.S. does not treat as “terrorist” in any other context to be defined in this way…refugees who pose no threat to the U.S., and are not guilty of any conduct for which the U.S. would legitimately want to exclude them, are being denied the protection they need or are unable to obtain permanent residence or reunited with their spouses or children. Any non-citizens who do pose a threat to the U.S. or who are guilty of actual terrorist acts or other crimes are already covered by other provisions of the immigration law, so that the “Tier III” definition is being used overwhelmingly against people who were not its intended targets.

Moreover the Human Rights Watch report demands that DHS -

adopt a more effective and fair approach to granting “waivers”, one that allows people initially applying for asylum, refugee status or other relief to be considered for waivers based on an individualized assessment of their actions, that permits prompt adjudication of the large mass of applications for permanent residence and family reunification of people…and that ensures that no refugee is deported without being considered for a waiver if eligible for one under law.

Anwen Hughes, the author of the report, says that the speed at which Congress and the Obama administration is dealing with situation is disastrously slow. She said that change is critical in order to ensure that the immigration laws are no longer used to exclude legitimate refugees from the protection the U.S. is committed to offering them.

Photo courtesy of www.humanrightsfirst.org