Commemorating the Anniversary of the Refugee Act

By Brenda Vargas

Shortly after Human Rights First was founded, our organization championed the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. Forty-four years ago today, Congress passed this bi-partisan bill establishing the U.S. refugee resettlement program and asylum system to welcome refugees and provide them an opportunity to rebuild their lives in the relative safety of the United States. It affirmed the United States’ commitment to protect the world’s most vulnerable people and brought U.S. policies into compliance with international law. 

On this anniversary, Human Rights First commemorates the Refugee Act and the elemental humanity it has afforded people who are persecuted and forced from their homes for political, religious, ethnic, racial, and other reasons.   

The Refugee Act provides refugees with safe haven in the United States.  More than that, it provides people who were forced to leave their homelands the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity. 

On this anniversary, we honor the contributions refugees make to American society. Refugees are essential members of almost every local community. They enhance cultural diversity, helping build inclusive communities nationwide. They also make profound economic contributions that help enrich all of us.

Human Rights First’s work illustrates the many ways the Refugee Act is a beacon of hope. Our Project: Afghan Legal Assistance (PALA) works closely with legal organizations, law firms, and resettlement agencies to help  at-risk Afghans evacuated from their homeland secure pro bono legal representation, navigate the complex immigration system, and find a proper welcome of dignity and respect to the United States. 

Human Rights First also pushes the United States to strengthen its commitment to providing a safe haven to people who face threats of persecution. Over the years, as new laws and policies have threatened the U.S. asylum system Human Rights First has led the charge to instead strengthen it.  

Earlier this year, when Congress debated the future of the U.S. asylum system as part of the supplemental foreign aid bill, our advocates pushed against the trading of a humane asylum system for aid to other countries.   

Human Rights First and allied organizations led a 300-person rally and press events in Washington, DC where leaders of the House’s Hispanic, Black, Progressive, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses joined advocates from across civil society calling for protection of the asylum system. Our outreach also included virtual advocacy days, when more than 300 participants from forty states led zoom meetings with their members of Congress to oppose forsaking asylum protections.   

After President Biden said on January 26 that he would shut down the border the day the bill being negotiated in the Senate gave him the authority to do so, Human Rights First stated our opposition. We detailed how the agreement would lead to chaos and endanger lives, analyzed what the elimination of immigration court hearings and federal court review would mean for asylum seekers, and condemned the agreement as a whole.  

With our allies, we can take some credit for the Senate finally passing the foreign aid supplemental without harmful anti-asylum amendments. More recently, when a group in the House introduced provisions that would reinstate “Remain in Mexico” and other policies that would punish asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants, we urged Members not to support it. 

Human Rights First has also addressed various challenges in the U.S. resettlement system, targeting limitations in rebuilding the refugee admission program, raising the number of annual refugee admissions to the United States, and other issues. 

We continue to educate and advocate on Capitol Hill,  championing legislative initiatives that would  strengthen our asylum system and protect refugees. We strongly support the Refugee Protection Act (RPA), Guaranteed Refugee Admissions Ceiling Enhancement (GRACE) Act, Climate Displaced Persons Act (CDPA), and New Deal for New Americans (NDNA), among others. 

The fabric of our nation is woven with the stories and contributions of immigrants and their descendants. The U.S. government must meet its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, and Human Rights First will continue to push it to uphold the humanity of people seeking safety in this country. 

On this anniversary, and every day we work on asylum and refugee issues, we know this country can do better.  To that end, we work to protect and celebrate refugees for their courage, accomplishments, and contributions. As an organization, and with your help, we will ensure that our nation embodies the principles of the Refugee Act.



  • Brenda Vargas

Published on March 15, 2024


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