Statement to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. State Department

COMMENTS OF

HIAS

REGARDING THE U.S. REFUGEE ADMISSIONS PROGRAM FOR FISCAL YEAR 2015

May 27, 2014

 

HIAS has welcomed refugees to the United States as new Americans for more than 130 years. As a Jewish-American organization, HIAS is acutely concerned both with the imperative to rescue refugees and to protect the security of our country.  

2014 Achievements

We thank our colleagues at the State Department Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), in coordination with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for reaching the 70,000 admissions ceiling for FY 2013, once again resettling more refugees than all other countries combined.  We are also grateful for progress made towards easing the impact of the terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds (TRIG)  in authorizing exemptions for those who provided material support that was insignificant or provided incidentally in the course of everyday social, commercial, family or humanitarian interactions or under significant pressure.  We thank you for ensuring that security checks are done more efficiently, without the massive “collateral damage” to innocent people that we saw in previous years.

We commend PRM for prioritizing the protection and empowerment of particularly vulnerable refugees, including survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). We value PRM’s decision to take on the mantle of the Call to Action to mobilize the global response to SGBV in humanitarian crises and applaud PRM’s funding of SGBV refugee initiatives, including innovative programs run by HIAS in East Africa and Central America, and HIAS research on the barriers faced by “overlooked” refugee populations (older, disabled, male survivors and LGBTI) to SGBV services. PRM’s focus on SGBV prevention and response helps ensure protective services and durable solutions for some of the most traumatized refugee survivors of SGBV. 

We also value the ongoing commitment by PRM to protect LGBTI refugees. We commend PRM on its work to implement some of HIAS’ recommendations from the PRM-funded 2013 study Invisible in the City: Protection Gaps Facing Sexual Minority Refugees and Asylum Seekers, including by: training PRM staff on LGBTI refugee protection concerns; encouraging RSCs to expedite the resettlement of at-risk sexual minority refugees; and funding innovative mechanisms to safely shelter LGBTI refugees, particularly as they await resettlement.

We thank our colleagues at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Department of Health and Human Services for their commitment to meeting the needs for all the populations under their care.  We commend ORR for its perseverance in responding to immense challenges posed by the growing influx of unaccompanied non-citizen children.  We also thank ORR for recognizing the needs of refugees who need extra support when they arrive in the US, including torture survivors and sexual minorities, by extending intensive case management services to them through Preferred Community Grants.

We also thank PRM and ORR for responding to the anti-refugee resettlement backlash that has emerged in recent years, threatening the long-term viability of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Last year, 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. In the past year, HIAS, in partnership with four of the other national resettlement agencies, launched a pilot program to prevent refugee resettlement backlash at the local level.  Through the joint project called “The Linking Communities” or “TLC” Project, we convened a diverse group of stakeholders in refugee resettlement in Ohio and Pennsylvania and supported local projects to promote the benefits of resettlement in communities across the pilot states.  We anticipate that the project will continue for another year, and hope that the results inform work across the country to strengthen support for refugee resettlement.

These are all significant and important achievements, which improve the capacity of all U.S. Refugee Admissions Program partners to welcome refugees to the United States.

Challenges for 2015

Historically, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has served two critical purposes: rescuing persecuted people who are in immediate danger, and offering persecuted people who have been languishing in refugee camps and on the margins of cities a chance to start new lives in safety in the United States.  Yet, by all accounts, a program that takes two to three years or more to process a refugee for resettlement, and excludes many more for unsupportable or unarticulated reasons, is a system that is broken.

The program is no longer a rescue program if refugees who face immediate danger – the most vulnerable of all refugees – must remain where they are for years before the U.S. government can process their paperwork.  The program also no longer works if it results in years of lost productivity for refugees who have been already languishing for years in camps or other places where they cannot integrate. 

The U.S. refugee resettlement program must be completely redesigned and returned to its original purpose.  Layers of bureaucratic requirements that have been added over the decades have resulted in multiple interviews seeking identical information that waste resources and needlessly re-traumatize refugees, and duplicative medical and security checks that expire multiple times during the resettlement process.  The road from the refugee camp to the U.S. has become an endless loop.  This is unacceptable for a humanitarian program and dishonors our history as the world’s leader in offering safe haven to refugees.

The TRIG bars are yet another barrier to resettlement that limit the U.S. government’s ability to rescue and offer safety to the most vulnerable refugees. Because the U.S. government must consider whether a population is likely to be subject to the TRIG bars before deciding to offer resettlement, and UNHCR must consider possible TRIG implications in deciding whether to refer cases to the U.S., refugees who are most at risk or who have the greatest humanitarian need can be deemed too difficult to process and therefore not prioritized for resettlement. 

With the myriad of security checks, relationship verification measures, increasing reliance on case-by-case rather than group referrals, the TRIG bars, and with each step in the process having its own expiration date, the U.S. Refugee Admissions process has become incredibly complicated. The Department of State should 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.

This will be critically important if the U.S. intends to join the efforts of other countries and begin to rescue Syrian refugees.  The United States should commit to resettling at least half of the refugees identified by UNHCR as needing resettlement - or at least 15,000 each year over the next five years. This should be in addition to the 70,000 refugees the U.S. has committed to resettle. That said, Syrian refugees do not have three years to wait; the U.S. must establish a process so that resettlement for the most vulnerable can begin now.

It is also time that the Department of State expands 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. We also urge the State Department to coordinate more closely with ORR so that refugees with special needs can be placed at “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.

We also urge the State Department to for the first time state in the annual report to Congress on the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program that the extension of the Lautenberg Amendment is needed to continue safe and orderly processing of Iranian religious minorities in Austria.  The extension of the Lautenberg Amendment allows the U.S. to continue its proud tradition of resettling persecuted religious minorities from the Former Soviet Union and Iran. 

With the months-long crisis in Ukraine, we welcome the Refugee Support Center Eurasia’s decision to pre-screen cases referred by UNHCR in Kyiv, and recommend that RSC and USCIS institute a mechanism for regular circuit rides and cultural orientation in Kyiv.  At this time, it is totally inappropriate and unnecessary for the US Refugee Admissions Program to continue to require Ukrainian nationals to travel to Moscow – twice – in order to be processed as refugees.  

Now is the time for PRM to dramatically increase and expedite resettlement of refugees in Ukraine. Asylum seekers and refugees face considerable risk of refoulement, an inefficient and corrupt asylum system, little social assistance, and pervasive discrimination. As a result, UNHCR recently announced that European states should not return asylum seekers to the country. Political unrest, a depressed economy, and widespread xenophobia make local integration nearly impossible.

Resettlement, though often the only durable solution, can take years due to limited resources at UNHCR Ukraine. The recent influx of Crimean Tatars has put even greater resource constraints on the office, which was recently forced to severely reduce medical, housing, and other support to refugees. While constitutional reform may lead to increased protection for refugees, at this early stage in the process and with so many urgent reform issues to address, that outcome is far from clear.  We therefore strongly recommend that PRM fund agencies to identify the most vulnerable asylum seekers, conduct resettlement interviews, and refer refugee cases to UNHCR to finalize and submit to resettlement countries. We also call on PRM to support UNHCR Ukraine so it can provide refugees with medical, housing, and other support, and work with local partners to implement UNHCR’s 2009 Strategy to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, especially through awareness-raising targeting local communities, with a special focus on youth.

Turning to Africa, following Kenya’s March 2014 enactment of a new encampment directive, we urge PRM to support efforts to monitor the security of refugees in urban and camp settings in Kenya and facilitate their expedited resettlement wherever possible.

Finally, we urge the State Department to increase resettlement of Colombian refugees, particularly those in Ecuador and Panama.  PRM established a regional RSC in Quito but this has not resulted in a significant increase in Colombian refugee processing and admissions.  We urge PRM to recommit to resettling Colombian refugees who are at risk and/or who are not likely to ever locally integrate where they are or return home.

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, we note again 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 noted 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 checkboxes 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 for Classification as a Refugee (Form I-590), so they would finally know what information was submitted by the RSC on their behalf in support of the refugee application.

Conclusion

Thank you for considering HIAS’ comments for FY 2015. 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. Thank you for the privilege to work with you to help refugees rebuild their lives.