Immigration reform should include safe haven for persecuted

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Through Human Rights First’s pro bono legal representation program, we see the ways that current U.S. immigration laws and policies deny or delay asylum to refugees who seek this country’s protection from political, religious and other persecution. A range of barriers in current immigration law limits access to asylum or other protection for many refugees. Lawmakers have a responsibility to take a hard look at the current asylum system and ask themselves why a nation that embraces its legacy as a protector of refugees fleeing well-founded fears of persecution would put up barriers and traps in the process.
 
Previously, deal-making and political compromises often resulted in more barriers for asylum seekers. For example, in 1996, Congress enacted an arbitrary asylum filing deadline limiting the time refugees had to file their asylum claims. That deadline has since garnered criticism from across the political spectrum. At a recent Human Rights First summit, James Ziglar, Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush, characterized the deadline as one in a series of “human rights abuses” and “human rights violations” contained in the current broken immigration system. Dr. Richard Land, President of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention added that the rule “needs to go.”
 
Can immigration reform reflect American values and its legacy as a nation that is a global leader in protecting persecuted people from around the world? The answer to that question is yes.  
 
There is more bipartisan support for immigration reform than we’ve seen in years and no shortage of political incentives for both parties to create a reform package that reflects American values. Leaders on both sides of the aisle are calling to prioritize immigration reform, fix existing visa programs and provide a pathway to citizenship. Here are four things that should not be left on the negotiation room floor:
 
    •    Eliminate the wasteful and counter-productive asylum filing deadline that bars refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum and diverts overstretched adjudication resources. This unfair and counterproductive rule leads this country to deny asylum to many genuine refugees and also wastes limited governmental resources that could be more efficiently spent addressing the merits of cases. The administration marked the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention last year by pledging to work with Congress to eliminate the deadline and it included elimination of the asylum filing deadline in the president’s new immigration reform principles.
 
    •    Reduce unnecessary immigration detention costs and implement lasting reforms through cost-effective alternatives to detention, immigration court review of detention decisions, and standards and conditions in line with the American Bar Association’s proposed civil immigration detention standards. The Hill’s Congress Blog featured a fuller discussion of this recommendation last year, when Annie Sovcik challenged Congressman Lamar Smith over his House Judiciary Committee hearing last year, “Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards.”
 
    •    Require and support a fair and efficient adjudication process, expanding efficient legal orientation programs in immigration detention and supporting counsel where justice requires, including for children, persons with mental disabilities, and other vulnerable immigrants. U.S. immigration courts are currently overstretched and underfunded, so that some are now waiting two years or more for their court hearings. Approximately 84% of detained immigrants and about half of immigrants overall have no legal counsel, left to navigate complex proceedings unrepresented.
 
    •    Protect refugees from inappropriate exclusion and free up administrative resources by adjusting overly broad immigration law definitions that have mislabeled victims of armed groups and other refugees who present no risk as supporters of “terrorism.”
 
As it debates immigration reform measures, Congress should commit to measures that will strengthen basic due process, fix the nation’s flawed approach to immigration detention, and realize the full potential of America’s commitment to refugees. Along with important proposals to provide a pathway to citizenship and fix existing visa programs, immigration reform should correct some of the serious problems in the current asylum system and bring our immigration system into line with American values and commitments to fairness and human rights. The steps detailed above are a good place to start.
 
Ibrahim is an advocacy counsel for Human Rights First.

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