Post-Election, Progress on Protecting Refugees is Still Possible

The common ground and purposes that bound together the two houses of Congress and the Presidency may have narrowed since last Tuesday, but progress on immigration policy is still possible. Over at The Huffington Post, blogger and doctoral student Philip Wolgin has put together a list of modest proposals for the next two years of sharply-divided government, to ensure that we welcome deserving immigrants. Two of his suggestions in particular speak to the concerns of health professionals working to promote the human rights of vulnerable migrants: amending the material support to terrorism bar, and the one-year asylum filing deadline.PHR has long championed the cause of health professionals affected by overzealous interpretation of the law prohibiting anyone who has provided “material support” to terrorists from receiving humanitarian protection in the US (see, for example, this statement submitted to the Senate). “Material support” has been read by the Department of Homeland Security to include providing medical care, even where that care is rendered merely out of duty to care for whomever is in need of treatment, regardless of the person’s race, religion, beliefs, or other personal characteristics. Ironically, medical neutrality is a principle otherwise embraced by the US government, enshrined in documents including the Army Field Manual and State Department Human Rights Reports. Scores of health professionals who clearly are not terrorist supporters have been, and are being, senselessly denied protection under the present "material support" policy, including:

  • A Colombian emergency room doctor who treated a guerrilla brought into his hospital. After he reported the incident, as required, to the Colombian government, the guerrilla group began to threaten his life.
  • A West African woman who answered a human rights group’s call for volunteers and provided emergency first aid to fighters on both sides of her country’s civil war.
  • A Nepalese health professional who worked for a local Health Department, and in that role provided treatment to prisoners who included captured Maoist rebels.

Another unjustified barrier to gaining humanitarian protection in the US exists in the form of the asylum filing deadline: individuals must request asylum within one year of arriving in the US. Refugees miss this deadline for a variety of reasons, often having roots in their histories of persecution, and their struggles. Many are socially and linguistically isolated in this country, and do not become aware that they qualify for asylum protections until long after their arrival; others, such as LGBTI individuals, are frightened about revealing themselves and put off confronting their pasts for as long as they can. Our colleagues at Human Rights First recently released this report which shows how the filing deadline only serves to put legitimate refugees in peril, ultimately harming their health and well-being.Mr. Wolgin’s post is highly-recommended reading. Please join him and PHR in calling for our representatives in Congress to find common ground in a commitment to protect survivors of human rights abuses, and to take on these two much-needed reforms.

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