Thirty years ago, the 1980 Refugee Act was signed into law, fulfilling the United States’ obligations under the international 1951 Refugee Convention. Since 1980, more than 2.6 million refugees and asylum seekers have been granted protections in the United States because of persecution of their race, religion, or national origin, social, or political group. Today, however, modifications to immigration laws in 1996 and 2001 have seriously eroded our ability to provide protections to potential refugees and asylees. Refugees and asylum seekers currently face numerous obstacles in the United States even after they escape persecution in their home country, including arbitrary application deadlines made even more difficult by a language barrier, disadvantages in immigration court that U.S. citizens do not face, and the possibility of being placed in detention facilities without having ever committed a crime.

Yesterday, Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Levin (D-MI) introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 (S. 3113). The new bill, also co-sponsored by Senator Durbin (D-IL), would renew the United States’ commitment to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with bona fide claims are protected by the United States. Sen. Leahy stated that the act would “repeal the most harsh and unnecessary elements of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996,” as well as “correct[] agency and court misinterpretations of law that limit access to safety in the United States for asylum seekers.”

The Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would:

  • Eliminate the requirement that asylum applicants file a claim within one-year of arrival in the U.S.
  • Protect particularly vulnerable asylum seekers by ensuring they can pursue a claim even where their persecution was not socially visible.
  • Require an immigration judge to give notice and an opportunity to respond when the judge requires corroborating evidence of an asylum claim.
  • Give an asylum applicant the opportunity to explain and clarify inconsistencies in a claim.
  • Codify the current Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy that asylum seekers be considered for release from detention (“parole”) and requires DHS to issue regulations establishing criteria for parole.
  • Establish a nationwide, secure “alternatives to detention” (ATD) program.
  • Require changes in the immigration detention system to ensure asylum seekers and others have access to counsel, medical care, religious practices, and visits from family.
  • Eliminate the one year waiting period for refugees and asylees to apply for a green card.
  • Allow certain children and family members of refugees to be considered as derivative applicants for refugee status. All such applicants must pass standard security checks.

There were a number of high profile attendees at the briefing for the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, including Rep. Cao (R-LA), UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, Vice President of Resettlement Operations at the International Rescue Committee Kay Bellor, Senior Counsel to Sen. Leahy Tara Magner, Legislative Director to Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) Cynthia Buhl, and various members of DHS and USCIS.

Rep. Cao, a former refugee, related his experience coming to the United States in 1975 after the Vietnam War and spending 6 months in a refugee camp in Arkansas before he was taken in by an American family. Guterres, also a former prime minister of Portugal, applauded the U.S. commitment to refugees, but warned that integration of refugees is the real test, and that the U.S. needs to put more effort into alternatives to detention and detention reform. The bill would also be a cost saver—ATD’s cost less than actual detention. Money would also be saved if we stopped redundant background checks when asylum applicants enter the U.S. and then apply for a green card.

While in general, the U.S. is very generous in its acceptance of persons fleeing persecution, there is still more to be done. The U.S. must ensure that the systems used to integrate refugees into the United States also afford these refugees adequate legal protections. The Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would serve to protect refugees in the difficult process of becoming permanent residents.

Photo by United Nations Photo