Blueprint for Obama Administration Provides Recommendations for Repairing the U.S. Asylum System

NEW YORK – A leading human rights advocacy group released a detailed strategy today for the next administration to repair the U.S. asylum system and restore the United States to prominence as a global leader in providing refuge for victims of religious, political, ethnic and other forms of persecution. Human Rights First’s blueprint – How to Repair the U.S. Asylum System – offers the incoming Obama administration a series of concrete recommendations to restore the U.S. commitment to providing refuge to those who flee persecution and arrive in this country in search of protection. United States law reflects its international legal obligation to refrain from turning away those who need safe haven from persecution. Over the last decade, however, new legal obstacles, restrictions on basic due process, expanded use of detention, and overly-broad counterterrorism measures have made it increasingly difficult for deserving refugees to gain asylum protection. This trend has undermined core U.S. values and weakened this country’s historic commitment to protecting those who have suffered or fear persecution because of who they are or what they believe. The blueprint describes a process by which asylum seekers may now be jailed for months or even years upon their arrival while their applications work their way through the system. Many refugees are being denied asylum protection due to an arbitrary filing deadline, and some who fled persecution by terrorist groups are being labeled “terrorists” themselves, due to overly broad definitions of terrorism in current law. These flawed policies create a grave risk that the United States is returning refugees to countries where they may suffer persecution, torture, or death. “Refugees are perhaps the most vulnerable of all immigrants. And yet the current system for determining eligibility for protection is stacked against them,” said Elisa Massimino, CEO and Executive Director of Human Rights First. “Bush administration policies advanced in the name of national security have further disfigured the immigration system and left refugees more vulnerable than ever, undercutting our nation’s core values.” The United States has a long-standing commitment to freedom and respect for human dignity. It is a party to the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects people against forced return to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinions. The United States codified these guarantees by passing the Refugee Act of 1980. “The institution of asylum in the United States is at risk, and with it U.S. global leadership on refugee protection. The United States needs to follow through with its legal obligations and set a global example for the protection of refugees.” Massimino said, “Other countries look to the United States to set the standard for refugee protection, because of its history of engagement on this issue. There is no question that when the United States lowers the bar, refugee protection worldwide is harmed.” President-elect Obama affirmed in his election victory acceptance speech earlier this month that the United States derives its strength as a nation from the “enduring power our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.” In that spirit, Human Rights First is calling on the President-elect to implement policies that will restore those ideals at the start of his term. The blueprint makes the following recommendations:

  • Implement changes in structure, training and personnel at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that these agencies carry out their international obligations to the protection of refugees in addition to their many other responsibilities. Implementation should include creating a Refugee Protection Office within the DHS Secretary’s Office, maintaining the Senior Refugee and Asylum Policy position and providing that position with staff, increasing White House coordination on refugee and asylum issues through the National Security Council, and instituting changes at DOJ that will restore the safeguards provided in the review process at the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA);
  • Safeguard asylum seekers from arbitrary and unnecessary detention. Implementation should include providing asylum seekers with access to custody review hearings by an immigration judge, establishing reasonable parole guidelines, developing effective alternatives to detention programs, preventing asylum seekers from being held in jail-like facilities, and codifying legally enforceable detention standards;
  • Ensure that bona fide refugees are not barred from protection by the arbitrary one-year filing deadline;
  • Ensure that refugees are not inappropriately barred from asylum because of overly broad definitions of “terrorism” or “terrorist” organizations. Implementation should include passing legislation that amends the definition of terrorism in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) so that it actually targets terrorism, reviewing the extreme interpretations adopted by the Bush administration related to what constitutes “material support” and involuntary acts, and establishing a more effective process of exercising the administration

 How to Repair the U.S. Asylum System is the fourth installment in a series of strategy papers released by Human Rights First to guide the next administration in restoring American leadership in human rights in critical spheres.  Others include: How to Stop Arms to Sudan , How to Close GuantanamoHow to End Torture and Cruel TreatmentHow to End Impunity for Private Security and Other ContractorsHow to Promote Human Rights in Russia, and How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis.


Published on December 4, 2008


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