Today, rather than considering whether American compassion is being taken advantage of by nefarious asylum seekers exploiting holes in our country’s immigration system, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee should ask whether our asylum system ensures that everyone who seeks asylum on our shores is met with a “strong asylum system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner.”
The United States’ commitment to those who flee to our shores seeking protection from persecution on account of their beliefs or identities is at the core of who we are as Americans. This promise was formalized when the United States committed itself to the Refugee Convention and Protocol and, in turn, when it enacted the 1980 Refugee Act. That system allows people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.
Keeping fraud out of the asylum system is essential to ensure that bona fide asylum seekers receive the protection they need. As Eleanor Acer, director of the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First, testified today, “A strong asylum and immigration system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner and includes effective tools for fighting abuse, is essential both for ensuring the integrity of the U.S. immigration process as well as for protecting refugees from return to places of persecution. If individuals or groups are defrauding the asylum system, it hurts everyone, and steps should be taken to counter those abuses and punish the perpetrators. U.S. authorities have a range of effective tools to address abuses.”
But a strong, robust, and properly resourced asylum protection system combined with a reformed immigration system that grants opportunities to workers and timely reunites families – not more barriers to protection – is the answer to combatting fraud. There is a real need for Congress to direct more resources to our immigration court system, which now has just 249 judges nationwide.
While several witnesses at today’s hearing recounted cases of fraud, they offered no solutions beyond interdiction and detention – strategies that are designed not to protect refugees but instead to keep them from making their claims for protection in the first place.
We can see the failure of this deterrence approach. Today, asylum seekers are arbitrarily detained and jailed upon entry, penalizing and deterring them from seeking asylum in the United States. The system charged with adjudicating asylum claims is under-resourced, leaving some people waiting behind bars for weeks or months while immigration officials determine whether they have “credible fear” and will get a chance to ask for asylum in the United States or they will be summarily deported. Nonetheless, asylum seekers continue to ask for our protection.
The Advocates for Human Rights began working with asylum seekers soon after the Refugee Act took effect. In the three decades that followed, we have represented asylum seekers as they struggled to establish not only their claims for protection but their credibility. We see their tears – tears of pain as they recount the horrors they fled and of relief when they are granted asylum. They’re telling the truth.
Michele Garnett McKenzie is director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights.