The House of Representatives Should Defeat the Anti-Asylum Bill

By Olga Byrne

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee marked up the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 391), a severely anti-asylum law that would potentially change the asylum system in the United States as we know it, making an already tortuous system impossible for many refugees.

H.R. 391 includes numerous harmful provisions. It would categorically deny asylum to groups of individuals who have been victims of crimes—which may include domestic violence victims or victims of LGBTQ-targeted attacks—and essentially eliminate the statutory basis for release from detention on parole. It would raise the credible fear screening standard to an unduly high level, and effectively put an end to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Another provision, which would allow the secretary of homeland security to designate other nations a “safe third country” without a bilateral agreement, risks sending the majority of asylum seekers who enter the United States at the southern border back to Mexico to seek asylum. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) strongly opposed this measure, citing a recent report by Human Rights First that documents the dangers asylum seekers face in Mexico, including kidnapping, sexual assault, trafficking, and other life-threatening dangers.

What’s the justification for proposing these extreme changes to U.S. asylum law? It’s hard to know. Supporters of this bill have raised concerns about the asylum system that are often not based on any reliable evidence.

For example, during markup last week, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) repeatedly referred to “abuse of the system” by asylum seekers who had been released from detention on parole with a notice to appear at an immigration court hearing. Rates of appearance in immigration court have long been debated by policy makers. But the overwhelming evidence points to the conclusion that immigrants who have been released from detention and referred to community-based programs (which operate at a fraction of the cost of immigration detention) have high rates of compliance with immigration obligations. When immigrants are represented by legal counsel, appearance rates are even higher, with recent data showing 98 percent of immigrant families with legal representation are in compliance with immigration court appearance obligations.

Several members introduced amendments to the bill in an attempt to mitigate its harm and create more oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA) amendment would require that any border agent who turns away an asylum seeker at the border in violation of the law would be referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Rep. Johnson countered Jayapal’s amendment insisting there was “no evidence” to support that asylum seekers were in fact being turned away at the border. This was after a report by Human Rights First as well as an audio recording showing a border agent rejecting an asylum seeker had been introduced into the record. Nonetheless, Rep. Johnson concluded that since it was “the policy” of DHS and CBP to refer asylum seekers to the credible fear screening process, and since the number of credible fear referrals had increased, it was impossible that some asylum seekers were being rejected.

At a time when the world is facing the largest refugee crisis in history, it’s shameful to see Congress take steps to curtail asylum seekers’ rights. The U.S. system already makes it nearly impossible for some to seek asylum. As Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) pointed out, highlighting a recent brief by Human Rights First, the Trump Administration is prioritizing federal prosecutions of immigration-related offenses, such as “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry.” However, no exception is made for individuals seeking asylum—a legal act—and many are penalized, sent to federal prison, and deported before having a chance to have their asylum claims heard. Moreover, the ongoing practice of border agents illegally rejecting asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry has created an alarming catch-22, as some are effectively forced to cross into the United States without authorization—only to then be referred to a federal prosecutor.

The immigration and asylum systems are fraught with problems and reforms are needed. But before passing hateful legislation that would block refugees from the protection they are legally entitled to under U.S. treaty obligations, members of Congress should do their jobs and review the overwhelming evidence available on immigrants in the United States. Whether it’s the positive contributions of refugees, studies showing that immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native born, or that providing government-funded legal counsel for immigrants in deportation proceedings would pay for itself, the evidence shows us that refugees and immigrants alike have a positive impact on this country and will follow the rules—so long as the system doesn’t make it impossible for them to do so.


Published on August 4, 2017


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