Congress Urged to Reject Bills that Would Undermine Asylum in United States

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today urged members of the House of Representatives to reject legislation that would severely undermine access to asylum in the United States. The call came in a statement for the record sent to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security ahead of its hearing, “Another Surge of Illegal Immigrants Along the Southwest Border: Is this the Obama Administration’s New Normal?”

“The U.S. asylum system has protected thousands of refugees from return to places where they would face political, religious, or other persecution,” noted Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer in the statement. “Protecting the persecuted is a core American value.”

This morning’s hearing will focus on the flow of mostly vulnerable individuals seeking asylum at the United States’ southern border and two proposals that would send legitimate refugees and children back to dangerous conditions. The proposed bills are the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (H.R. 1153) and the Protection of Children Act (H.R. 1149). Among many changes to the law, these bills would:

  • Raise the expedited removal screening standard to an unduly high level.
  • Deny asylum to large numbers of refugees based on transit or stays in countries where they had no legal status, or no lasting legal status, and to which they cannot be returned in most cases.
  • Potentially prevent arriving asylum seekers who have passed the credible fear screening process from being paroled from immigration detention, instead leaving them in jails and facilities with conditions that resemble jails for months or longer, even though there are more fiscally-prudent and humane alternatives that have been proven effective.
  • Drastically narrow the definition of an “unaccompanied child” and allow unaccompanied children to be held in the custody of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) for as long as one month rather than being transferred to the more appropriate care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Subject unaccompanied children to the arbitrary one-year asylum filing deadline.
  • State that the government not bear expense for counsel.
  • Allow asylum applicants and unaccompanied children to be bounced to third countries in the absence of any agreement between the United States and the countries in question for the reception of asylum seekers.

The United States has long-employed the misguided policy of locking up vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, typically in facilities with prison-like conditions, for months or years at a time. Recently Human Rights First staff visited detention facilities in California, Texas, and New Jersey, where asylum seekers and immigrants are held even if they could be released through more humane and cost effective initiatives. Research has shown that immigration detention causes additional harm to already-traumatized asylum seekers and other migrants who have suffered previous trauma. More humane alternatives to detention, including case management and community-based programs, have been shown to be effective at securing appearance. Community-based alternatives may cost as little as 20 percent of the cost of detention.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of detention. The Human Rights First report, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging,” finds that, as detailed in medical and mental health research, detention—even for relatively short periods of time—is harmful to children and families. Leading pediatricians, physicians, and social workers have described the negative effects of immigration detention on children, which include behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.

In addition to supporting efforts to address the human rights conditions in Central America prompting many to flee their homes, Congress should take steps to strengthen the asylum system, including:

  • End the detention of children and their families and effectively implement parole and release procedures.
  • Rather than invoking expedited removal, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should refer all families directly into removal proceedings before an immigration judge.
  • Immigrant families seeking asylum should have their claims heard by the Asylum Office, rather than by an immigration judge.
  • Increase immigration court staffing to address removal hearing delays and eliminate the hearing backlog.
  • Increase Asylum Office staffing to address backlogs and provide timely referrals into removal proceedings.
  • Use cost-effective alternatives to detention rather than more detention.
  • Support Legal Orientation Programs (LOP) and access to counsel measures that improve the fairness and efficiency of the immigration system.
  • Remove unnecessary impediments that delay cases and block refugees from the United States’ protection.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called upon all countries in the region to recognize that there is a growing refugee situation in parts of Central America. U.S. government data also confirms that many who flee these countries have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum: in the second quarter of fiscal year 2015, U.S. asylum officers found that 88 percent of families seeking asylum from family detention centers had a credible fear of persecution.

“Refugees should not be penalized for seeking protection, and it is not illegal to seek asylum,” noted Acer.


Published on February 4, 2016


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