The Unforgiving Line between Persecution, Protection, and Limbo
by Annie Sovcik, Human Rights First Advocacy Counsel Deadlines are everywhere – income taxes must be filed by April 15th to avoid a penalty from the IRS, final term papers must be turned in by the end of the semester to earn a passing grade, job or college applications must be submitted by a set date for consideration. In few circumstances, however, do deadlines dictate unforgivably the answer to fundamental human questions such as whether a mother will ever hold her child again, whether a husband will see his wife again, or whether a refugee will be granted asylum protection in the United States or face return to a country where she has a well-founded fear of suffering religious, political, ethnic and other forms of persecution. In our newest report, “The Asylum Filing Deadline: Denying Protection to the Persecuted and Undermining Governmental Efficiency,” Human Rights First documents how the one year asylum filing deadline – a technical/procedural obstacle to asylum – has barred thousands of refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from receiving asylum in the United States and resulted in increased costs and delays in the asylum adjudication system. The report was featured in yesterday’s New York Times, “Reports Say Deadline Hinders Asylum Seekers,” and on WNYC, “Refugees Denied Asylum After Missing Filing Deadlines.” The report details the agony of some of the estimated 21,000+ refugees from countries including Burma, China, Colombia, Guinea, Iran, and Sierra Leone, who could have been granted asylum but for the deadline between April 1998, when the deadline went into effect, and June 2009. Among them, the report recounts the story of an Eritrean woman who was tortured and sexually assaulted due to her Christian religion, but denied asylum in the United States based on the filing deadline even though an immigration judge found her testimony credible and compelling. It describes the plight of a student who was jailed by the Burmese military regime for his pro-democracy activities and then denied asylum by the United States based on the filing deadline despite his isolation in the U.S. and lack of English. And it explains the case of a Chinese woman who feared persecution and torture in China for her assistance to North Korean refugees but, even though she was determined by an immigration judge to face a clear probability of torture, she was denied asylum based on the filing deadline. Refugees denied asylum on the basis of the deadline, may still be eligible for “withholding of removal,” which requires a higher burden of proof and offers a temporary promise by the U.S. government to not return a refugee to a country where his life or freedom would be threatened. This temporary promise, however, keeps refugee families divided, leaving young children stranded in difficult circumstances abroad and separated from their refugee parents in the United States, as withholding of removal does not allow a parent or spouse to petition to bring their children and spouses to safety in the United States. Beyond the human tragedy, the deadline pushes the cases of credible refugees into the overburdened immigration courts, diverts limited time and resources that could be more efficiently allocated to assessing the actual merits of asylum applications, and is not needed to counter abuse in the system. Human Rights First recommends Congress eliminate the asylum filing deadline so that claims can be adjudicated on their merits, rather than on the basis of an arbitrary line that has the power to dictate whether a refugee will be returned to persecution, granted protection, or left in limbo. To assist in this effort, please urge your Senators to co-sponsor the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, a bill that would fix several problems in the U.S. asylum system, including eliminating the one year deadline. Click here to read Human Rights First’s report.