House Should Reject Bills that Undermine U.S. Protection of Refugees

Washington, D.C. Human Rights First today urged members of the House Judiciary Committee to reject the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (H.R. 391) introduced yesterday by Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). This legislation would severely undermine the United States’ commitment to refugees by sending those with legitimate fears of persecution back to dangerous circumstances.

“Many of the provisions in this bill would risk the lives of refugees and unaccompanied children fleeing violence and persecution by blocking access to asylum or other protection in the United States,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “This bill undermines U.S. global leadership on protecting refugees and victims of trafficking and sends the wrong signal to countries around the world, encouraging them to shirk their responsibilities to protect victims of persecution and trafficking.”

The Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, originally introduced in the 114th Congress, would lead to the deportation of legitimate refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, leave others in immigration detention for months and put children at risk of return to trafficking, death, and persecution in their home countries. Human Rights First expressed its strong opposition to the bill when introduced last year in a statement submitted for the record, expressing concern that passage of the bills would make it harder for those fleeing persecution and torture to file for asylum in the United States, a process already fraught with obstacles.  In a series of recent reports, Human Rights First has documented the sharp escalation in U.S. detention of asylum seekers and the failure of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release from detention asylum seekers who are eligible for parole and meet the relevant asylum parole standards. Instead, many are held in facilities with conditions identical to those in criminal correctional facilities for many months and sometimes longer.

“At a time when U.S. use of the costly tool of immigration detention is already at an all-time high, this bill seeks to block the release of asylum seekers from immigration detention even when they have passed initial screening, can establish identity and present no flight or safety risk. This approach runs contrary to American ideals of liberty and violates U.S. human rights and refugee protection treaty commitments.  It would also be exceedingly costly, leading millions of dollars more to be paid out to immigration detention facility operators.  This approach is even more inexplicable given the availability of more cost effective and humane alternatives,” added Acer.

Human Rights First does, however, note that the bill would provide for an increase in immigration judges, a long overdue move that would help to alleviate the backlog in the overburdened immigration courts. The organization calls on Congress to support a significant increase in immigration court staffing, whether via appropriations or alternative legislation that does not undermine access to asylum.

Among many changes to the law, these proposed pieces of legislation would:

  • Further heighten the expedited removal screening standard for those seeking this country’s protection at the border to an unduly high standard;
  • Appear to prevent arriving asylum seekers who have passed the credible fear screening process from being paroled from immigration detention;
  • Block access to U.S. asylum for refugees fleeing persecution in many cases where they transit through another country;
  • State that the government not bear expense for legal counsel;
  • Overturn provisions in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) that protect children from return to traffickers or persecution;
  • Drastically narrow the definition of an “unaccompanied child”; and
  • Subject unaccompanied children to the arbitrary one-year asylum filing deadline bar.

Human Rights First recommends that Congress take steps to strengthen the asylum system, including:

  • Increase immigration court staffing by at least 150 judge teams to address removal hearing delays and eliminate hearing backlog;
  • Call for and support increased asylum office staffing to address backlogs and provide timely referrals into removal proceedings;
  • End the detention of children and their families, and effectively implement parole and release procedures;
  • Support the use cost-effective alternatives to detention rather than more detention; and
  • Fund legal orientation programs and access to counsel measures that improve fairness and efficiency of the immigration system.

Published on January 11, 2017


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