Holston, Mansour: Don’t lose asylum-seekers in immigration overhaul

HRI’s Executive Director Bill Holston and Legal Director Chris Mansour recently wrote an editorial on asylum in the context of immigration reform for the Austin American-Statesman.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee have scheduled the Senate’s first immigration reform hearing of 2013. This hearing is an important opportunity for Cornyn to make his priorities clear as the push for immigration reform moves forward. We encourage him to make the most of it, and here’s how.

Asylum-seekers are some of our nation’s most deserving immigrants, yet they are usually an afterthought when immigration reform is discussed. Human Rights Initiative of North Texas has represented asylum-seekers to our country for over 12 years. Our clients come to the United States because they believe America stands for human rights. Asylum-seekers are those people from other countries who have fled because they have been persecuted and even tortured because of their beliefs or simply because of who they are. Our clients do not take for granted the freedoms Americans enjoy and, when provided the opportunity, frequently become among our country’s best citizens.

As the United States considers comprehensive immigration reform, we call on Congress to include key changes to the U.S. asylum system to better ensure that refugees who seek the protection of the United States are afforded meaningful access to a fair, effective and timely asylum adjudication process. Sadly, this group of deserving immigrants is usually absent from discussions of immigration reform.

There are a series of key reforms that should be included in immigration reform legislation, and we urge Congress and the administration to ensure that they are not left on the negotiating room floor as this debate draws to a close.

First, the administration and Congress should eliminate the arbitrary asylum filing deadline barring refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum. Many individuals fleeing persecution are traumatized and do not understand that they must apply for asylum within one year of entering the country. This deadline is arbitrary and causes many meritorious claims to be denied.

Second, lawmakers should require and support a fair and efficient adjudication process authorizing legal representation in particular cases, including for children, persons with mental disabilities and vulnerable immigrants in immigration detention. Immigrants are often unrepresented, and we have seen the devastating consequences as these populations try to navigate a complex legal system. We should eliminate lengthy backlogs by increasing staffing at immigration courts and mandating that the government provide a legal orientation program in all detention facilities.

In addition, immigration reform should protect refugees from inappropriate exclusion and free up resources by amending the law so that legitimate refugees are not excluded under the so-called “material support” bar, which is being interpreted much too broadly. The law should target actual terrorists, those who use armed force against civilians.

It is also important for Congress and the administration to implement lasting immigration detention reforms to protect detained individuals, including asylum-seekers, and reduce unnecessary costs through expanding cost-effective alternatives to detention, immigration court review of detention decisions, strengthened oversight, and heightened standards and conditions. Congress should also make sure that refugees are not being turned around at the border and returned to persecution with no examination of their claims.

In addition, our leaders must ensure adequate safeguards for all children, including child asylum-seekers. These cases should be heard by the asylum office, which is less intimidating than immigration court. The law for deciding these cases should take into account children’s special needs and fundamental rights. Bars that apply to other asylum seekers should not apply to children.

Last, it is imperative that lawmakers ensure that gender-based and other asylum claims are properly recognized by supporting legislative clarifications, especially the provisions clarifying what can constitute a “particular social group.”

As George Washington said, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” We need to sustain that commitment by taking this opportunity to strengthen our asylum laws and improve a flawed system. Senator Cornyn and his colleagues should keep that in mind as they participate in Wednesday’s hearing.

This editorial was originally published on February 12, 2013 in the Austin American-Statesman

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