Local immigration advocates, including Michele Garnett McKenzie of the Advocates for Human Rights, are excited about a new refugee bill introduced in Congress by Representative Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Minnesota is home to thousands of refugees and asylees. The new bill would allow for a strengthened comprehensive framework for the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers in Minnesota.
“I love this bill. It fixes a ton of problems with asylum seekers and refugees,” said McKenzie, an immigration lawyer who is the director of advocacy at the Minneapolis-based Advocates of Human Rights.
Both refugees and asylees are immigrants to the United States who are seeking protection based on fear that they will be persecuted in their home countries. However, while refugees receive their immigration status outside the United States and often are assisted by refugee resettlement programs, asylum seekers apply for protection after their arrival.
McKenzie described some of the changes that will eliminate problems such as overreaching “terrorism” provisions, too-short time limits, and unworkable evidence requirements.
What is “supporting terrorism?”
In 2009, Human Rights First released a report, Denial and Delay, that showed how thousands of refugees and asylum seekers were denied protection because of an overarching definition of terrorism and terrorist activities. According to McKenzie, under immigration law, “terrorist” is not clearly defined. “The U.S. Patriot Act expanded the definition of terrorist activities. For instance, a Nepalese woman paid terrorists for her kidnapped son’s ransom and was denied asylum because her money ‘supported’ a terrorist group.”
The report highlights cases in which refugees were victimized by armed groups, or participated in armed resistance groups against oppressive governments in their home countries. For example, some now-elderly Hmong men and women who fought alongside the U.S. armed forces in the Lao Hmong resistance were considered “terrorists” because they were in armed political opposition. Some have seen applications for permanent residence put on hold, because of “terrorist” provisions in the current law.
McKenzie described the case of a Liberian family who were forced to feed rebel soldiers when their home was invaded. The food and water provided is also considered support for terrorists.
“This new legislation allows the US to continue to deport terrorists securing our national security,” said McKenzie. “By restoring sanity to immigration laws it makes sure that victims are protected.”
Time limits and evidence
Under current immigration law, an asylum seeker must apply for protection within a year of their arrival in the United States. The new bill changes this, eliminating the arbitrary time limit. McKenzie said that, in many of the cases she has worked on, asylum seekers could not prove the time of their entry into the United States and were at risk of deportation even when it is clear that they are victims of torture.
A challenge in current immigration law has been providing corroborating evidence that would prove that an asylum applicant indeed faces persecution. According to McKenzie under the new bill “judges would make decisions based on testimony and available documents instead of sending off people on wild goose chases.” She explains that many times immigration judges asks applicants to provide government documents that they cannot realistically obtain because of either political strife or corruption in their home countries.
Currently, a person escaping from persecution must first apply for and obtain refugee or asylee status. After this status is granted, they have to wait for a year before applying for permanent residence. Under the new bill, refugees and asylees would immediately receive permanent resident status when their refugee/asylum petitions are approved.
Congressmember Patrick Leahy, who introduced the bill to reform the current 30-year-old Refugee Protection Act, said that the “the bill will restore the United States as a beacon of hope for those who flee persecution.”