Its time for Congress to act on refugees
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As communities across the country prepare to mark World Refugee Day, the Trump administration is preventing immigrants from seeking asylum and punishing those who do. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDems seize on Times bombshell to push allegations of Trump obstruction Mueller report may be 'anti-climactic,' says ex-intelligence director CNN ripped for hiring former Republican operative as political editor: 'WTF?!?!' MORE is attempting to rewrite U.S. asylum law to deny refugee protection to women fleeing domestic violence and families fleeing deadly gangs. This is merely the latest salvo in the Trump’s administration broad attack on the human rights of refugees.

In the wake of World War II, the United States spearheaded efforts to ensure that nations do not turn away people seeking refuge from persecution. Yet now President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE is trying to choke off all paths to safety for refugees, pushing policies, practices and legislative proposals designed to keep them out.

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His so-called Muslim ban and cuts to resettlement have received the most attention. But the spotlight is now turning to his cruel attacks on asylum. Despite refugee and human rights law prohibitions on rejecting and punishing people for seeking protection, the United States is turning asylum seekers away at its border, ripping children from the arms of asylum-seeking parents, criminally prosecuting asylum seekers for “illegal entry,” and holding asylum seekers in immigration jails for long periods even if they meet the government’s own release standards. 

Defending their “zero tolerance” policies, Sessions and Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenImmigrant advocacy groups seek restraining order to block Trump asylum policy The Hill's Morning Report - Trump faces mounting challenges to emergency declaration 2,000 asylum seekers return home, decide to stay in Mexico: report MORE say refugees should seek asylum at official entry points rather than cross between them. But at “ports of entry,” Customs and Border Patrol officers, in what appears to be a coordinated effort, are telling asylum seekers they don’t have enough space or turning them away.

Administration officials suggest that refugees are breaking the law by seeking asylum. In fact, immigration officers are breaking the law by preventing them from doing so.

The administration is targeting asylum seekers even as unauthorized border crossings have dropped to a 46-year low, and even amid a refugee crisis originating in Central America. Last month, the UN Refugee Agency reported “a significant increase” in the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in Central America and called on the international community to address their protection needs.

Trump administration statements on asylum consistently ignore the regional refugee crisis. Instead, the president and administration officials depict refugees as security threats, frauds and criminals, deride asylum as a “loophole,” and stoke spurious fears that people will try to “stampede” or “force their way in” to the country.

Sessions’s recent ruling rewriting U.S. asylum law is something different. He’s not denying that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence are victims; he’s saying they’re victims who don’t merit asylum. In so doing, he’s prejudging cases and encouraging adjudicators to deny asylum in these cases even though they may meet asylum legal standards. He’s also pressing credible fear screening adjudicators to deny these refugees the opportunity even to apply for asylum—a move designed to trigger summary returns without hearings. 

This has clearly proven to be a political and moral miscalculation. Along with systematic family separation, the denial of asylum to women and children fleeing persecution makes the attack on asylum look like what it is: an attack on vulnerable people. Instead of protecting survivors of domestic violence, the administration will try to hand them back to their persecutors. Two weeks ago, President Trump was condemning M-13; now he’s trying to deny asylum to its victims.

This gives an opening to those of us who believe the United States should remain a safe haven. Congressional leaders of both parties should broadly defend the cherished right to seek asylum by challenging the administration’s other harmful policies and practices. These include the denial of protection to battered women and other victims of non-governmental persecutors, turning back asylum seekers at border posts, criminal prosecution of asylum seekers, and the massive overuse of detention.

Congress should also insist that the United States address the Central American refugee crisis as a protection matter, rather than a trumped-up threat to national security. The United States can safeguard both its security and human rights. This week House members will have the opportunity to stand up for refugees—and mark World Refugee Day—by rejecting extremist proposals curtailing asylum. Both bills, one introduced by Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteIt’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling House GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end MORE (R-Va.) and another that mirrors the White House’s immigration policy priorities, would block access to refugee protection in the United States and send children and other vulnerable asylum seekers to detention facilities for even longer.

In attacking the right to asylum, the Trump administration is inflicting suffering on people who’ve already suffered greatly and rejecting the country’s commitment to refugees. Few, if any, ideals are more central to our history and our conception of ourselves. The president’s war on refugees threatens to redefine our country. It’s time for Congress to act.

Eleanor Acer is senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First.