Strengthening Protection for Asylum Seekers

In the midst of a fierce public debate about US immigrationpolicy, it is sometimes easy to forget that the US has long taken the lead inoffering refuge to people who suffer persecution and torture in their homecountries. We have resettled more refugees than any other country in the world,and thousands of people are granted asylum every year.

But in spite of our country’s leadership in this field, muchremains to be done to ensure that every deserving refugee gains protection inthe US. The past successes and current challenges in the US asylum process werethe focus of a day-long symposium on the 60th anniversary of the1951 Refugee Convention, which enshrined in international law the human rightto protection from persecution and the fundamental duty of all states to offerrefuge to those who flee persecution and torture in their home countries.

Co-hosted by Georgetown Law, Human Rights First, and theOffice of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Reaffirming Protection: Strengthening Asylum in the United States” brought together adiverse group of advocates, academics, and government officials to discuss thestate of the asylum system. Representatives from Immigration and CustomsEnforcement (ICE) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), two ofthe agencies within the Department of Homeland Security charged with overseeingthe asylum system, agreed that much needed to be done to remove the barriers thatstand in the way of genuine refugees gaining asylum. For example, allparticipants agreed that the one-year bar to asylumis an unnecessary impediment to asylum that does nothing to deter fraud in theasylum system, and has actually given rise to criminal enterprises that producefraudulent documents for asylum seekers.

Speakers also discussed the difficulties created by theincreased use of immigration detention. Under current US law, all people whoarrive at a US border and ask for asylum must be detained. While many have theopportunity to leave detention if they can demonstrate a credible fear ofpersecution in their home countries, many others wait for months in detentionfor an Immigration Judge to decide whether they merit asylum. Many of thesedetained asylum seekers do not speak English or have legal representation, andare kept in detention centers located far away from family, friends, and legalservice providers. While ICE has made significant progress in correcting themost egregious abuses in the detention system, much remains to be done toensure that asylum seekers have a fair shot at obtaining asylum.

One common thread running through all of the day’sdiscussions was the urgent need for Congress to address our broken immigrationsystem. As committed as DHS may be to fixing the detention system and ensuringaccess to asylum, many reforms cannot be made without acts of Congress. Severalbills currently in Congress, including the Refugee Protection Act of 2011 andthe Restoring Protection to Victims of Persecution Act, would eliminate theone-year filing deadline and deserve the full support of Congress. And whilethe upcoming implementation of a risk assessment tool to determine whether someimmigrants really need to be detained is a welcome reform by ICE, it lacks theauthority to release any immigrant who Congress has deemed mandatorilydetainable.

Sixty years after the creation of the 1951 RefugeeConvention, the US still protects more refugees than any other country. But theroad to gaining asylum has become unnecessarily burdensome and prevents untoldthousands of people from gaining asylum every year. As one panelist stated, thecomplexity of asylum law is itself a defacto bar to asylum for many people. Dedicated advocates and government officialshave presented many worthy solutions to these problems. It is time for Congressto recognize that our asylum and immigration detention systems are broken andfulfill its responsibility to ensure that America can offer protection toeveryone fleeing persecution and torture abroad.

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