Religious Freedom Report Two Years On: HIAS Concerned at Inaction on Recommendations

Posted on Thu, Feb 08, 2007 at 11:42 am

Asylum-seekers at most risk

(New York City)– The “report card” on the government’s progress in implementing recommendations from a 2005 study on asylum seekers in expedited removal is not something the Department of Homeland Security will be proud of. The report, which points to inaction on the part of the DHS, has officials at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the organized Jewish community’s immigration agency, concerned that worthy asylum-seekers will suffer the most.

According to the report released today in Washington and requested by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), most of the recommendations made two years ago by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have not been implemented, putting asylum seekers in the United States at risk of unacceptably poor treatment by authorities and return to countries where they may face persecution.

“The USCIRF performed an invaluable service to America by conducting this study in 2005, and we welcomed the recommendations they made, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s appointment of a senior advisor on refugee and asylum the following year,” says Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “However, today we are quite disappointed in the lack of implementation since that time. What is of particular concern to us is the incarceration of asylum seekers in jails or jail-like facilities, the failure of Customs and Border Patrol to follow their own rules on the protection of asylum seekers at ports of entry, and the expansion of Expedited Removal without fixing these problems.”

HIAS was in fact so impressed with the work of the USCIRF study, notes Aronoff, that it was one of the reasons the agency brought the study director – Mark Hetfield – on board as senior vice president for policy and programs.

Despite the recommendations made in 2005 and the failure to resolve the problems cited in the study, the Department of Homeland Security has instead expanded Expedited Removal from a port-of-entry program to one that covers the entire land and sea border of the United States.

Congress enacted Expedited Removal to provide for the prompt removal of aliens arriving without proper documents. Such aliens can be returned to their country of origin without delay, but also without the safeguard of a hearing before an immigration judge. Concerned by the obvious risk that refugees – who often travel without proper documents – might mistakenly be returned to their persecutors, Congress created special procedures for their protection. Asylum seekers are detained while an assessment is made as to whether their case warrants consideration by an immigration judge. If so, they are allowed to appear before a judge and may, at the government’s discretion, be paroled while their asylum case is pending. If not, they are put back in the regular expedited removal process, and removed promptly.

“When truly worthy asylum seekers – people fleeing bloody, horrible conditions in their home countries – arrive in the United States they already are shell-shocked from their life experiences,” says Aronoff. “Yet when they reach our shores, they are treated as criminals. This is unacceptable. We have an obligation to treat asylum seekers with dignity, fairness, and respect as they seek refuge in our country.”