Leahy, Levin co-sponsor Refugee Protection Action of 2010

WASHINGTON (Monday, March 15, 2010) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Monday introduced legislation to strengthen the country’s commitment to protecting refugees fleeing persecution or torture.  The Refugee Protection Action of 2010 will help to improve protections for refugees and asylum seekers with bona fide claims.  The legislation is cosponsored by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

The introduction of the Refugee Protection Act also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the historic Refugee Act of 1980, which was enacted to fulfill the country’s obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.  The Leahy-authored legislation introduced Monday addresses shortfalls in current law that place unnecessary and harmful barriers before refugees with legitimate asylum claims, making it more difficult for them to find safe harbor in the United States.

“It is time to renew America’s commitment to the Refugee Convention, and to bring our law back into compliance with the Convention’s promise of protection,” said Leahy.

“The Refugee Protection Act of 2010 contains provisions of a bipartisan bill that I previously introduced in the 106th and 107th Congresses to repeal the most harsh and unnecessary elements of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a law that had tragic consequences for asylum seekers.  It also corrects agency and court misinterpretations of law that limit access to safety in the United States for asylum seekers.  Finally, it modifies the immigration statute to ensure that innocent persons with valid claims are not unfairly barred from the United States by laws enacted after September 11, 2001, while leaving in place provisions that prevent dangerous terrorists from manipulating our immigration system.”

The Refugee Protection Act provides increased protections for refugees and asylum seekers.  The bill eliminates the one year waiting period for refugees and asylum seekers to apply for a green card.  The legislation authorizes the Secretary of State to designate certain vulnerable groups as eligible for expedited adjudication as refugees.  The Refugee Protection Act also clarifies the law to ensure that innocent asylum seekers and refugees are not unfairly denied protection as a result of the material support and terrorism bars in law, while ensuring that those with legitimate ties to terrorist activity will continue to be denied entry to the United States.

Leahy first introduced the Refugee Protection Act in the 106th Congress, with bipartisan support.  The legislation would have repealed the harshest restrictions on access to asylum that were enacted in 1996 as part of immigration reform legislation.  Since Leahy first introduced the legislation, the immigration statute has been modified, expedited removal has been expanded administratively, and several court decisions have combined to further limit protections for refugees and asylum seekers.

Leahy has long fought to improve protections for refugees seeking safety in the United States.  He has intervened to help many refugees who were resettled in Vermont but needed assistance to bring eligible family members to join them.

“Vermonters have made a strong and sustained commitment to assisting refugees with resettlement,” said Leahy.  “I am proud of the Vermonters who have devoted countless hours to help victims of persecution build new lives in our state.  I am continually amazed by the resilience of the refugees and asylees in Vermont.  Refugees in Vermont enrich the communities in which they live, opening small businesses, farming, and participating in cultural activities.”

The legislation is supported by 20 national organizations that resettle refugees or advocate for fair treatment of refugees seeking safety in the United States.  These groups include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, and the American Bar Association, among others.  The Congressionally-mandated bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom endorsed the provisions of the bill related to expedited removal.  The bill is also endorsed by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates, and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

Key provisions of the Refugee Protection Act include:

  • Increased Protections for Asylum Seekers:
    • Eliminates the requirement that asylum applicants file their claim within one year of arrival.
    • Protects particularly vulnerable asylum seekers by ensuring they can pursue a claim even where their persecution was not socially visible.
    • Ensures fair process by requiring an immigration judge to give notice and an opportunity to respond when the judge requires corroborating evidence of the asylum claim.
    • Gives an applicant the opportunity to explain and clarify inconsistencies in a claim.
    • Enables minors who seek asylum to have an initial interview with an asylum officer in a non-adversarial setting.
    • Allows the Attorney General to appoint counsel where fair resolution or effective adjudication of the proceedings would be served by appointment of counsel.
  • Reforms to the Expedited Removal Process:
    • Requires the referral of asylum seekers to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview, and, if credible fear is found, for an asylum interview.
    • Authorizes the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to conduct a new study on the effects of expedited removal authority on asylum seekers.
  • Parole of Asylum Seekers:
    • Codifies the current DHS policy that asylum seekers be considered for release (“parole”) and requires DHS to issue regulations establishing criteria for parole.
    • Establishes a nation-wide, secure “alternatives to detention” program.
    • Requires changes in the immigration detention system to ensure asylum seekers and others have access to counsel, medical care, religious practice, and visits from family.
  • Terrorism Bar to Admissibility:
    • Modifies definitions in the statute to ensure that innocent asylum seekers and refugees are not unfairly denied protection as a result of the material support and terrorism bars in the law, while ensuring that those with legitimate ties to terrorist activity will continue to be denied entry to the United States.
  • Protection for Refugees and Asylees:
    • Eliminates the one year waiting period for refugees and asylees to apply for a green card.
    • Allows certain children and family members of refugees to be considered as derivative applicants for refugee status.  All such applicants must pass standard security checks.
    • Authorizes the Secretary of State to designate certain groups as eligible for expedited adjudication as refugees.
    • Prevents newly resettled refugees from slipping into poverty by adjusting the per capita refugee resettlement grant level annually for inflation and the cost of living.

Leahy is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration and refugee related issues.

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