HIAS' Statement at PRM's Public Hearing on the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program

Posted by HIAS – NY on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 18:51 pm

Below is the text of Mark Hetfield’s speech, presented at the State Department as part of an annual forum at which stakeholders and the public submit comments, suggestions, and concerns about the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.


Presented by Mark Hetfield, President & CEO

Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Washington, DC


At this forum last year, I spoke about HIAS’ 130 years of welcoming refugees to the United States as new Americans, beginning with the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. I emphasized that, as a Jewish-American organization, HIAS is acutely concerned both with the security of our country and with the viability of the Refugee Program. I reaffirmed HIAS’ absolute commitment to working with our U.S. government partners to ensure that individuals who would do our country harm be screened out of the refugee program. The terror which refugees fled must not follow them to the United States.

However, I also reflected that HIAS knows that the history of providing protection for the persecuted is speckled with dark periods when the United States government has confused the terrorized with the terrorist, and the oppressed with the oppressor. Such was the case when the golden door was slammed shut on German Jews trying to escape the Nazis. As refugees of an enemy nationality, they were perceived as a security risk. Last year, I lamented that the United States was, once again, in one of those dark periods.

Today, I am very pleased to note that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is in a much better place, thanks to the hard work and dedication of this Administration and the three federal departments that are participating in today’s meeting. Security checks are now being done much more efficiently, without the massive “collateral damage” to innocent people that we saw last year. For the first time in three years, refugees are arriving at an even pace and at the level for which we planned, allowing our affiliates to maintain capacity and welcome them properly.

Mazel tov to our colleagues at the State Department Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for working out many of the issues which plagued the USRAP last year, and to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Department of Health and Human Services for shifting its Preferred Communities to extended case management. These are all tremendous achievements, which improve the capacity of all U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Partners to welcome refugees to the United States.

That said, there are of course challenges we need to overcome together, in partnership with one another and with the refugees whom we resettle.

First, too many refugees have fallen between the cracks on the basis of terror related inadmissibility grounds (TRIG), and have been left there by the U.S. government due to sheer inefficiency and failure to act. Last August, Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano announced that she would finally start adjudicating applications from refugees already admitted to the United States whose green card or family reunification cases have been gathering dust for years after being flagged for TRIG issues. Secretary Napolitano’s promise remains unimplemented. Refugees and others with ties to “Tier III” groups which were supported by the United States government or which have long been defunct, continue to remain in DHS’ filing cabinets. Applications from these refugees are simply being ignored by an unworkable system requiring centralized review of each Tier III group before any individual in that group, no matter how small or large, can be granted an exemption.

The Administration’s interpretation of “material support to terrorism” continues to be far broader than was the intent of the law, which was supposed to be directed at denying relief to those who are responsible for, or supportive of terrorist acts. This interpretation must be reviewed and revised. Too many innocent victims of terror now have been mislabeled as terrorists, without the U.S. government making an effort to apply a common sense application of the law.

And with the myriad of security checks, relationship verification measures, an increasing reliance on case-by-case rather than group referrals, with each step in the process having its own expiration date, the U.S. Refugee Admissions process has become incredibly complicated. HIAS strongly recommends that the Department of State retain a team of experts in business processes, with the security clearances necessary to study the admissions process holistically, to see how the process can be made more efficient with less redundant or unnecessary steps that cost time and resources but which—when looking at the evidence—add little or no value. We need to reinvent the USRAP from the ground up so it can be efficient and secure, rather than the labyrinth that it has become.

In February, HIAS released a paper entitled Resettlement at Risk: Meeting Emerging Challenges to Refugee Resettlement in Local Communities. In it, HIAS noted that states are facing rising anti-refugee sentiment stemming from the perception that refugees are taxing scarce resources. The report contains six recommendations to address community concerns through more effective and strategic resettlement practices.

Specifically, the report recommends:

1. The refugee resettlement agencies should build and support capacity at the national and local levels to generate and maintain broad-based commitment to resettlement in local communities.

2. The federal government should create national benchmarks for refugee integration and measure progress toward success.

3. PRM and ORR should develop and share best practices for community consultation.

4. PRM and ORR should improve information sharing during the resettlement process.

5. PRM should better prepare refugees for resettlement before they arrive in the U.S.

6. The national and local refugee resettlement agencies, along with partners, stakeholders, and supporters of refugee resettlement, should advocate for federal refugee reform and sufficient funding for refugee resettlement.

We urge all actors in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to further implement action plans to realize the recommendations expressed in the paper.

We commend the Department of State for prioritizing the protection of LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers overseas, such as through their support of the HIAS study Invisible in the City, Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers. This study was released in February of 2013. This initiative is particularly important; as such refugees often live in fear of reprisals from their own communities. We also commend the ORR for having, through its preferred community programs, funded initiatives to develop community linkages to support the needs of refugees and asylees who are LGBTI.

However, we urge the State Department to coordinate more closely with ORR so that refugees with special needs can actually be placed at those “preferred community” sites which ORR funds to meet special refugee needs. It is lamentable that, while ORR funds a preferred community site in New York for refugees who are sexual minorities, no refugees have been able to access the program which, consequently, has only been able to serve asylees. The Reception and Placement process managed by PRM should start taking into account where ORR has funded sites to meet refugees with special needs.

Also, it is time that the Department of State expanded P-3 family reunification possibilities—now limited to the spouse, parents and unmarried children under 21 of refugees and asylees—to same sex partners, in accordance with the State Department’s prioritization of human rights for all—including LGBTI refugees.

Year after year in this forum, HIAS has noted that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refugee adjudications are not sufficiently transparent. As this has not improved, I will say the same thing I said last year, and the year before that. Adjudications made under such a veil of secrecy would not be tolerated in asylum or other domestic adjudication. Not only has there been little progress over the last two years in terms of greater transparency, but in some instances the process has actually gotten worse. As discussed earlier, USCIS decisions of denial based on security checks articulate no reason whatsoever for the denial, other than to say that the denial was made on “discretionary grounds.” One change is purported to be on the horizon: USCIS now says they are prepared to give applicants denied on security grounds more information in the decision. We look forward to this change.

The Lautenberg Amendment requires that USCIS explain the reason for a denial of refugee status under the Amendment “to the maximum extent feasible.” For more than 20 years, Lautenberg applicants have been given denial notices consisting of check-boxes which are devoid of any information specific enough upon which to base a meaningful appeal. For more than 20 years, HIAS has been complaining about this violation of the letter and spirit of the law. Such opaque decisions make it impossible for denied refugees to ascertain whether the denial was reasonable or based on an error in law, fact, or language interpretation. USCIS released an updated denial notice with more checkboxes. This did not significantly improve transparency.

In April 2010, the USCIS Ombudsman recommended that USCIS improve its denial notice as well as address other serious issues relating to transparency and due process in refugee adjudications. That year, HIAS urged USCIS to implement these recommendations. USCIS stated that it was actively studying and considering approaches to implement change, yet further changes have not yet been made. HIAS looks forward to more transparency in the refugee adjudication process, which would enhance confidence in USCIS refugee adjudications.

One good start in the direction of transparency would be for USCIS to allow Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) to give refugee applicants a copy of their own application Form I-590, so they would finally know what information was submitted by the RSC on their behalf in support of the refugee application.

Thank you for listening to HIAS’ concerns, and congratulations again on the numerous improvements recently made to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. We are proud of our partnership with ORR, PRM, USCIS, UNHCR, the other voluntary agencies, and the refugees who have made the United States a better place. This year, HIAS will be launching a campaign to promote Jewish faith leaders signing onto the international interfaith “Affirmation of Welcome” instrument which emerged out of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Dialogue on Faith and Refugee Protection, convened in Geneva in December 2012. The Affirmation calls upon communities of faith and their leaders to stand up against xenophobia, and welcome refugees. This is something which the United States of America has done so well throughout most of our history. HIAS is so pleased to be a part of it, with our other partners in the USRAP. Thank you for the privilege to work with you to help refugees rebuild their lives.

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