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Strengthening Protection for Asylum Seekers

Mike Corradini, JD on October 27, 2011

In the midst of a fierce public debate about US immigration policy, it is sometimes easy to forget that the US has long taken the lead in offering refuge to people who suffer persecution and torture in their home countries. 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, much remains to be done to ensure that every deserving refugee gains protection in the US. The past successes and current challenges in the US asylum process were the focus of a day-long symposium on the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which enshrined in international law the human right to protection from persecution and the fundamental duty of all states to offer refuge to those who flee persecution and torture in their home countries.

Co-hosted by Georgetown Law, Human Rights First, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Reaffirming Protection: Strengthening Asylum in the United States” brought together a diverse group of advocates, academics, and government officials to discuss the state of the asylum system. Representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), two of the agencies within the Department of Homeland Security charged with overseeing the asylum system, agreed that much needed to be done to remove the barriers that stand in the way of genuine refugees gaining asylum. For example, all participants agreed that the one-year bar to asylum is an unnecessary impediment to asylum that does nothing to deter fraud in the asylum system, and has actually given rise to criminal enterprises that produce fraudulent documents for asylum seekers.

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

One common thread running through all of the day’s discussions was the urgent need for Congress to address our broken immigration system. As committed as DHS may be to fixing the detention system and ensuring access to asylum, many reforms cannot be made without acts of Congress. Several bills currently in Congress, including the Refugee Protection Act of 2011 and the Restoring Protection to Victims of Persecution Act, would eliminate the one-year filing deadline and deserve the full support of Congress. And while the upcoming implementation of a risk assessment tool to determine whether some immigrants really need to be detained is a welcome reform by ICE, it lacks the authority to release any immigrant who Congress has deemed mandatorily detainable.

Sixty years after the creation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the US still protects more refugees than any other country. But the road to gaining asylum has become unnecessarily burdensome and prevents untold thousands of people from gaining asylum every year. As one panelist stated, the complexity of asylum law is itself a de facto bar to asylum for many people. Dedicated advocates and government officials have presented many worthy solutions to these problems. It is time for Congress to recognize that our asylum and immigration detention systems are broken and fulfill its responsibility to ensure that America can offer protection to everyone fleeing persecution and torture abroad.

Places: United States