The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Blueprint for Obama Administration Provides Recommendations for Repairing the US Asylum System


A leading
human rights advocacy group released a detailed strategy today for the
next administration to repair the U.S. asylum system and restore the
United States to prominence as a global leader in providing refuge for
victims of religious, political, ethnic and other forms of persecution.

Human Rights First's blueprint - How to Repair the U.S. Asylum System - offers
the incoming Obama administration a series of concrete recommendations
to restore the U.S. commitment to providing refuge to those who flee
persecution and arrive in this country in search of protection.

United States law reflects its international legal obligation to
refrain from turning away those who need safe haven from persecution.
Over the last decade, however, new legal obstacles, restrictions on
basic due process, expanded use of detention, and overly-broad
counterterrorism measures have made it increasingly difficult for
deserving refugees to gain asylum protection. This trend has undermined
core U.S. values and weakened this country's historic commitment to
protecting those who have suffered or fear persecution because of who
they are or what they believe.

The blueprint describes a process by which asylum seekers may now be
jailed for months or even years upon their arrival while their
applications work their way through the system. Many refugees are being
denied asylum protection due to an arbitrary filing deadline, and some
who fled persecution by terrorist groups are being labeled "terrorists"
themselves, due to overly broad definitions of terrorism in current
law. These flawed policies create a grave risk that the United States
is returning refugees to countries where they may suffer persecution,
torture, or death.

"Refugees are perhaps the most vulnerable of all immigrants. And yet
the current system for determining eligibility for protection is
stacked against them," said Elisa Massimino, CEO and Executive Director
of Human Rights First. "Bush administration policies advanced in the
name of national security have further disfigured the immigration
system and left refugees more vulnerable than ever, undercutting our
nation's core values."

The United States has a long-standing commitment to freedom and
respect for human dignity. It is a party to the 1967 Protocol to the
1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects
people against forced return to places where their lives or freedom
would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality,
social group or political opinions. The United States codified these
guarantees by passing the Refugee Act of 1980.

"The institution of asylum in the United States is at risk, and with
it U.S. global leadership on refugee protection. The United States
needs to follow through with its legal obligations and set a global
example for the protection of refugees." Massimino said, "Other
countries look to the United States to set the standard for refugee
protection, because of its history of engagement on this issue. There
is no question that when the United States lowers the bar, refugee
protection worldwide is harmed."

President-elect Obama affirmed in his election victory acceptance
speech earlier this month that the United States derives its strength
as a nation from the "enduring power our ideals: democracy, liberty,
opportunity and unyielding hope." In that spirit, Human Rights First is
calling on the President-elect to implement policies that will restore
those ideals at the start of his term.

The blueprint makes the following recommendations:

  • Implement changes
    in structure, training and personnel at the Department of Homeland
    Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that these
    agencies carry out their international obligations to the protection of
    refugees in addition to their many other responsibilities.
    Implementation should include creating a Refugee Protection Office
    within the DHS Secretary's Office, maintaining the Senior Refugee and
    Asylum Policy position and providing that position with staff,
    increasing White House coordination on refugee and asylum issues
    through the National Security Council, and instituting changes at DOJ
    that will restore the safeguards provided in the review process at the
    Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA);
  • Safeguard
    asylum seekers from arbitrary and unnecessary detention. Implementation
    should include providing asylum seekers with access to custody review
    hearings by an immigration judge, establishing reasonable parole
    guidelines, developing effective alternatives to detention programs,
    preventing asylum seekers from being held in jail-like facilities, and
    codifying legally enforceable detention standards;
  • Ensure that bona fide refugees are not barred from protection by the arbitrary one-year filing deadline;
  • Ensure that
    refugees are not inappropriately barred from asylum because of overly
    broad definitions of "terrorism" or "terrorist" organizations.
    Implementation should include passing legislation that amends the
    definition of terrorism in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) so
    that it actually targets terrorism, reviewing the extreme
    interpretations adopted by the Bush administration related to what
    constitutes "material support" and involuntary acts, and establishing a
    more effective process of exercising the administration's waiver
    authority; and
  • Allow victims
    of gender-based persecution to qualify for asylum by promulgating
    regulations that make clear that women persecuted on account of gender
    are eligible for asylum.

The blueprint, How to Repair the U.S. Asylum System,
is the fourth in a series of strategy papers released by Human Rights
First to guide the next administration in restoring American leadership
in human rights in critical spheres. The first paper in the series, How to Close Guantanamo, was released this August, the second, How to End Torture and Cruel Treatment, was released in October, while the third, How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors, was released in November.

Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.