Protecting Refugees: an American Commitment and Tradition

By Elisa Massimino
President and CEO

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, a landmark piece of legislation that changed the U.S. approach to refugee protection by creating the legal status of asylum and a formal process for resettling refugees from around the world. It affirmed the U.S. commitment to providing refuge to victims of religious, political and other forms of persecution.

Every day at Human Rights First we see up close the ways in which the Refugee Act makes a difference in the lives of individual refugees. There is no more concrete reflection of the Refugee Act’s achievements than seeing refugees and their families find safe haven in the United States.

While the last 30 years has seen much progress in protecting refugees fleeing persecution, we also have seen in our work at Human Rights First where the United States has at times faltered in it its commitment – interdicting Haitians at sea without adequate protection safeguards, allowing political preferences to undermine the objectivity of asylum adjudications in the 1980s, and nearly shutting down the resettlement system in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Particularly in the last fifteen years, a barrage of new laws, policies and legal interpretations have undermined the institution of asylum in the United States and led this country to deny asylum or other protection to victims of persecution. Detention has escalated dramatically, and refugees with well founded fears of persecution are barred from asylum due to a filing deadline that limits access to asylum.

We can do better. Our history as a country of refugees, our tradition as a safe haven and beacon of hope for the persecuted, and our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol all tell us we must do better.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the signing of the act, Human Rights First held a symposium bringing together policymakers and experts in U.S. refugee and asylum law to discuss how we can overcome the current challenges in the U.S. refugee resettlement and asylum systems. It was an inspiring meeting that gave me hope for future reform.

This week we have seen movement: Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Daniel Akaka (D-HI) have introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 (S. 3113), legislation designed to strengthen America’s commitment to protecting refugees by repairing many of the most severe problems in the U.S. refugee and asylum systems. Human Rights First commends these Senators for their leadership. You can demonstrate your support for their efforts here.

Millions of Americans are here today because at some point they or their parents – or grandparents – had to flee from oppression or persecution and were either granted asylum or resettled as refugees here in the United States. After reflecting on the last 30 years since this law was passed, we have a lot to be proud of, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Together, we can ensure that our nation lives up to the promise of the Refugee Act.


Published on March 17, 2010


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