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HIAS Calls on Congress to Restore a Fair and Humane Process for Asylum Seekers

Statement submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary

Hearing on “Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security”

December 20, 2018

 

At HIAS - the American Jewish community’s global refugee organization - we are guided by the Jewish tradition of b’tzelem Elohim, the concept that all people deserve to have their human rights and dignity respected because we are all created in the image of God. Guided by these values, HIAS has provided comprehensive legal services to asylum seekers for decades, and has long been at the forefront of national and international advocacy for just and humane asylum laws.

In recent months, HIAS has sent staff and led delegations of Jewish leaders to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to learn what we can about U.S. asylum and detention policies and their impact on people seeking asylum. We have placed pro bono attorneys with legal service agencies in U.S. cities near the border to increase capacity to provide legal representation to asylum seekers, including those in detention. HIAS staff has monitored detention centers to verify that requirements under the Flores Settlement Agreement are being properly upheld and sent volunteer lawyers to Port Isabel Detention Center in Harlingen, Texas, to provide direct legal services to detainees. Our offices in Panama and Costa Rica assist asylum seekers who are fleeing south from the Northern Central American countries. Given the scope of our work, we know what people are fleeing and what they face as they try to find safety in the U.S. and other countries in the region.

From our experience doing this work, we have seen how the Trump Administration’s asylum and detention policies have resulted in a human rights crisis at our Southern border. As Central Americans continue to flee persecution and violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the Administration has implemented policies that deter, harm, and punish those seeking asylum and humanitarian protection in the U.S. These policies have included turning away asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, prosecuting people who cross between ports of entry, forcibly separating thousands of parents and children, and greatly expanding the use of detention.

We have also seen that it is critical that asylum seekers have access to legal representation. Detention impedes access to counsel. Non-detained individuals are 52% more likely to have legal counsel than those who are detained, and, on average, only 14% of detained individuals are represented in immigration court. The stakes couldn’t be higher. As a HIAS lawyer in San Diego said, “The system is very difficult and draining… most likely if they give up and go back to their country they will be killed.”

Under U.S. asylum law – and longstanding human rights principles arising from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – people who arrive at the U.S. border have the right to seek asylum. We urge the members of the Judiciary Committee to do everything in their power to ensure that that the Administration respects the rule of law, and restore a fair and humane process for all asylum seekers who arrive at our borders to seek protection.