Washington, 2 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One year after key changes to U.S. immigration laws, senators from both of America's major political parties say the U.S. government needs to show more flexibility when reviewing and granting cases of political asylum.
Four U.S. senators, Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), Michael DeWine (R-Ohio), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) held a news conference in Washington Tuesday to call attention to what they called "serious problems" with America's revised immigration policy.
The senators were joined at the press conference by several pro-immigration organizations, including the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, which unveiled a report called "Slamming the Golden Door: A Year of Expedited Removal."
The report examined the first year of the implementation of the U.S. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996" which changed the procedures by which arriving asylum seekers may ask for protection in America. The report was highly critical of the law and highlighted a series of problems with the new rules.
Among those rules the senators say they are most concerned about is a new immigration procedure called "expedited removal." This procedure provides for the immediate deportation of individuals who arrive in the U.S. without valid travel documents such as a passport or visa.
According to the new law, once an individual arriving in the U.S. is identified as not having the proper documentation, he is promptly sent to an INS official for an interview. During the course of an interview, the official must determine if the asylum-seeker has "credible fear" -- or what are considered legitimate, life-threatening reasons for fearing deportation.
It is this low-level immigration official, say the senators, who now has the authority to order the person immediately deported, subject only to a supervisor's approval. The senators say there is no further review of a secondary inspector's removal order.
Although the immigrants do have a right to counsel during the interview, say the senators, not all request the legal assistance. And even if they do, the senators say there is usually little time for prior consultation. Translation can also be a problem, they add, since immigration officials generally rely on telephone interpretation which can be both intimidating, ineffective and awkward.
Senator Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over immigration policy, told reporters: "Under these new methods, traumatized and fatigued refugees must quickly convince INS field officers that they have a credible fear of persecution if returned to their home country. I am deeply concerned that these new procedures may be resulting in many refugees being deported simply because they did not tell the 'right' story to these officers."
Leahy tried, but failed, to have the policy of expedited removal stricken from the original legislation when it was being drafted. He says he is dismayed that one year after this provision went into effect, it is impossible to know how many refugees were "returned to their countries because they could not establish a credible fear of persecution."
Another major contention with the new legislation, say the senators, is the deadline requiring immigrants to apply for political asylum within one year of their arrival in the U.S.
The senators say some refugees are so traumatized by their experiences of persecution, that it may take months or even years before they can bring themselves to talk about it. Others fear reprisals will be taken against family members left behind while some are fearful for their own safety and frightened in the presence of U.S. officials, they add.
To make matters worse, say the senators, is that most refugees have only a vague idea that they may be entitled to official protection under U.S. asylum laws. Many asylum seekers may not even know of the deadline until it is too late, they add.
All of these factors combined, say the senators, conspire to make compliance with the one-year deadline difficult, if not impossible for most people seeking political asylum in the U.S.
The senators urged the INS to be more flexible, compassionate and open-minded to immigrants seeking political asylum.
Adds Leahy: "Across the world, America stands for political freedom. We are seen as a port in the storm for those facing persecution or torture. As Americans, that should make us proud. I believe it should also make us vigilant in upholding these ideals. That is why our process of granting or refusing asylum must be an especially careful process."