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Is the US accomplishing enough with its refugee and asylum programs?

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The global population of people who have been displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations has gotten so large that it is not possible to resettle more than a relatively small fraction of them.

According to the UNHCR‘s Global Trends for Displacement in 2018, as of the end of 2018, there were 70.8 million displaced people worldwide. This included 25.9 million refugees — about half of whom were under the age of 18 — and 3.5 million people awaiting decisions on asylum applications.

UNHCR’s mandate covers 20.4 million of the refugees. The other 5.5 million are Palestine refugees who are handled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Eighty percent of the refugees are hosted by countries neighboring the refugees’ countries of origin.

UNHCR submitted 81,300 refugees for resettlement in 2018. If one includes additional refugees that countries accepted on their own, total resettlement for the year was 92,400.

U.S. refugee program

The number of refugees the United States accepts each year is set by the president in consultation with Congress. I attended five of these consultations when I was the counsel for the Democrats on the House Immigration Subcommittee.

The consultations I staffed, which were conducted in a private conference room, were attended by the Secretary of State, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the immigration subcommittee, and support staff.

The Secretary would submit a written report before the meeting and then present an oral summary of the report and answer questions at the meeting.

Knowledgeable organizations, such as HIAS, helped me to prepare meeting memoranda and questions for the Democratic members.

President Donald Trump set the refugee ceiling for fiscal 2019 at 30,000, which was a substantial reduction from the ceilings of previous administrations. According to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, this number should not be viewed in isolation: The United States also expects to process more than 280,000 asylum seekers in fiscal 2019, who will join the 800,000 asylum seekers already inside the United States awaiting adjudication of their claims. 

Trump’s proposal indicates that the 30,000 refugees will come from the following regions: 11,000 from Africa; 9,000 from Near East and South Asia; 4,000 from East Asia; 3,000 from Europe and Central Asia; and 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The estimated cost for processing and resettling them is over $1 billion.

The resettlement program is funded and administered through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Refugees also are eligible for Federal Public Assistance Programs — SSI for the aged, blind and disabled for seven years after entry; Medicaid (non-emergency care) for seven years after entry; TANF for five years after entry; and SNAP with no time limits.

In addition, ORR funds and administers programs to help aliens who have been granted asylum to restart their lives in the United States. This includes cash and medical assistance, employment preparation and job placement, and English language training.

U.S. asylum program

Most asylum-seekers are not able to meet the legal requirements for asylum eligibility. In fiscal 2019 through the end of June, the immigration court rendered 45,322 decisions on asylum applications and only granted 13,550 of them (30 percent).

Eligibility is less of a problem with refugees. They are screened by UNHCR before they are sent to the United States. 

Trump is trying to reduce the number of meritless asylum applications and the overall increase in illegal crossings which has overwhelmed the immigration courts. As of the end of June, the court’s backlog had risen to 945,711 cases, and the average wait for a hearing was two-and-a-half years. This is not a new problem. The backlog has risen every year since fiscal 2007.

Eligibility requirements

Section 208(b)(1)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides that asylum may be granted to an alien who has established that he is a “refugee” within the meaning of Section 101(a)(42) of the INA, which defines a “refugee” as an alien who has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Note that the “refugee” definition refers to a well-founded fear of “persecution.” This means that eligibility depends on the motivation of the person inflicting the harm, not on the nature of the harm or on how serious it would be.

If a gang extorts money from local merchants — threatening their lives in the process — it is a crime, but not persecution under the terms of the law. The motivation for the extortion is to get money from the merchants, not to persecute them.

Moreover, persecution alone is not enough to establish eligibility under the terms of the law. The persecution only counts for asylum purposes if it is being done because of the victim’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Being persecuted by a neighbor because he thinks you are making too much noise won’t do.

Perhaps the United States should increase its annual refugee admissions, but it is not possible for the United States to accept more than a small fraction of the world’s 25.9 million refugees, and asylum grants can’t be increased significantly unless the eligibility requirements are changed… or ignored.

And the rest of the countries in the world are not willing or able to provide the permanent homes all the refugees need either. 

We have to find a more realistic way to help them.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years.  Follow him on Twitter @NolanR1

Tags Asylum in the United States Asylum seeker Donald Trump Forced migration Immigration Refugee US border crisis

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