Strengthen the nation's asylum system

When President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met in Oval Office yesterday, it was a thaw in a partisan standoff that has lasted over a year.  I saw evidence of that earlier this month when I testified at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

The hearing, “Asylum Fraud: Abusing America’s Compassion,” was ripe for partisan bickering— and there was certainly some of that—but there was also some agreement. Republican and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security pledged both to uphold the country’s commitment to refugees and to prevent fraud.

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Here’s hoping that this consensus prevails as the debate over immigration reform continues, and as lawmakers work together to address some of the challenges identified at the hearing.  Protecting refugees is a core American ideal, central to the country’s identity and history.  Fraud undermines this mission. Any immigration proposal should strengthen the asylum system so that the United States remains a global leader on providing refuge to those fleeing persecution. We should treat this issue as a matter of life and death, because it is.

At the hearing, Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, “We grant asylum to tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year. We expect to continue this track record in protecting those who arrive here.” GOP support for refugees was elsewhere on display when ten leading Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and activist Grover Norquist, issued a statement saying “our policies toward refugees are at the heart of our American values.”

There’s no contradiction between protecting refugees and fighting fraud. On the contrary, fraud hurts those truly in need of protection. As Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) pointed out, “This country can both strengthen the integrity of its immigration system and also provide asylum to refugees in a timely, fair and efficient manner.”      

But in assessing fraud in the asylum system, members of Congress should use the best available information. The hearing  was called in part to examine a draft 2009 report that studied the possibility of fraud in 239 asylum cases in 2005. The nine-year-old information isn’t of much relevance because, as Lofgren pointed out, the government has since instituted a number of additional anti-fraud measures.

Even accepting for the sake of argument that this obsolete information is of probative value, it hardly reveals rampant fraud. In only 12 of the 239 cases—5%— was “proven fraud” identified in successful asylum applications.

A group of Congressional members has written a letter asserting that the 2005 data revealed “that at least 70 percent of affirmative asylum applications contain indicia of fraud.” Where does the figure come from? The report found “indicators” of “possible fraud” in another 58% of cases. Since the report doesn’t detail the indicators, their statistical value is unknowable. They appear to include discrepancies between written and oral testimony. But based on my organization’s everyday representation of refugees in the legal system, I can report that such discrepancies often result not from fraud but from mistranslation, trauma, or poor initial legal advice.

Given all the additional safeguards in the system and the increase in high-profile prosecutions, there’s every reason to believe that the procedures have grown stronger in the last nine years. That’s not to say they couldn’t be stronger still. Testifying at the hearing, I  outlined steps to strengthen the integrity of the asylum system in ways that reflect American values.

First, U.S. immigration agencies should use and continue to enhance anti-fraud tools. And the prosecution of those who orchestrate schemes that defraud our system should be prioritized.

In addition, both the immigration courts and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service asylum office should be staffed and resourced to adjudicate cases in a fair and timely manner. In the U.S. immigration courts, more than 350,000 cases have been pending for an average of 570 days. Backlogs can be a magnet for abuse. Adequate staffing is necessary to ensure thorough asylum interviews and court hearings—key tools for identifying fraud.  Delays also hurt refugees, leaving them in limbo and prolonging their separation from family. 

Lofgren urged members to “put their heads together” and address problems raised in the hearing.  What the country needs are common sense proposals that improve the integrity of the system without blocking access to asylum for bona fide refugees. 

Thirty three years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Refugee Act of 1980, which passed Congress with strong bi-partisan support, enshrining into domestic law America’s historic commitment to protect the persecuted.  As immigration reform continues to work its way through Congress, members should uphold this commitment.

Acer is director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection Program.