06.15.11

In Advance Of World Refugee Day, Leahy Introduces Refugee Protection Act

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, June 15, 2011) – U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is continuing his efforts to enact legislation to ensure U.S. protection for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries.  Today, Leahy introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2011, a bill he first introduced in 1999 with bipartisan support.

The Refugee Protection Act will help address shortfalls in current law, and help the United States fulfill its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.  Congress first addressed these obligations when it enacted the Refugee Act of 1980.  The bill introduction precedes international recognition of World Refugee Day, which is celebrated annually on June 20.

“There is no question that the United States is leader among nations in refugee protection, but we can do better,” said Leahy.  “The refugees we welcome to our shores contribute to the fabric of our nation, and enrich the communities where they settle.”

The Refugee Protection Act will increase protections for asylum seekers, and make important reforms to the expedited removal process by enabling asylum seekers to pursue their claims first before the Asylum Office of the Department of Homeland Security.  The bill will require the immigration detention system to ensure that asylum seekers and others have access to counsel, religious practice, and visits from family.  The bill also ensures that innocent asylum seekers and refugees are not unfairly denied protection as a result of overly broad terrorism bars that can have the effect of sweeping in those who were actually victimized by terrorists.  The bill ensures that those with actual ties to terrorist activities will continue to be denied entry to the United States.

“The Refugee Protection Act will reaffirm the commitments our nation made in ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention,” Leahy said.  “This bill would repeal the most harsh and unnecessary elements of current law, and help return the United States to its rightful role as a safe and welcoming home for those suffering from persecution around the world.”

Since 1989, almost 5,600 refugees have been resettled in Vermont.  In recent years, many refugees settling in Vermont have come from Bhutan, Burma, and the Congo.  The Leahy-authored Refugee Protection Act is supported by Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

“In Vermont, I have seen how the admission of refugees and asylum seekers has revitalized and enriched communities, resulting in the creation of new businesses, safer neighborhoods, and stronger schools,” said Leahy.  “Vermonters have played a tremendous role in welcoming refugees and asylees to their communities.”

Leahy’s legislation is supported by more than 40 organizations that support and advocate for fair refugee and asylum policies.  The bill is cosponsored by Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).  Companion legislation will be introduced today in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

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Text of the Refugee Protection Act

 

Section-By-Section Summary of the Refugee Protection Act (for background purposes)

 

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On The Introduction Of The Refugee Protection Act Of 2011
June 15, 2011

Today, I am pleased to introduce the Refugee Protection Act.  This bill, which is cosponsored by Senators Levin, Akaka, and Durbin, will reaffirm the commitments our Nation made in ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention, and help to restore the United States as a global leader on human rights.  This bill would repeal the most harsh and unnecessary elements of current law, and restore the United States to its rightful role as a safe and welcoming home for those suffering from persecution around the world.

During this challenging economic time, it can be tempting to look inward rather than to fulfill our global humanitarian commitments.  However, this bill is necessary now more than ever.  Millions of refugees remain displaced and warehoused in refugee camps in Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world.  The “Arab Spring” is helping to move governments of the Middle East toward democracy, but some governments have responded to peaceful demonstrations with violence.  We will continue to see genuine refugees who are in need of protection.  I was pleased to be able to protect funding for refugee assistance and resettlement programs in the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations continuing resolution, when many other programs were cut. 

In my home state of Vermont, I have seen how the admission of refugees and asylum seekers has revitalized and enriched communities, resulting in the creation of new businesses, safer neighborhoods, and stronger schools.  Since Senator Ted Kennedy authored the 1980 Refugee Act, more than 2.6 million refugees and asylum seekers have been granted protection in the United States.  And since 1989, almost 5,600 refugees have been resettled in Vermont.  We are fortunate to have the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, with its decades of experience and award-wining volunteer program, leading this effort.   Over the last five years, many of these new Vermonters have come from Bhutan, Burma, and the Congo.  Their culture is enriching my historically Anglo Saxon and French Canadian state.

Once resettled, these refugees have become nursing assistants, soccer coaches, and small business owners.  In Burlington’s Old North End, there are two thriving halal markets, side by side. The Nadia International Halal Market is run by an Iraqi refugee.  Next door is the Banadir Market, run by a Somali Bantu refugee.  Vermonters enjoy these new additions to the culture, and these thriving small businesses create local jobs in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood.

Equally important are the family- and community-based values of these new Vermonters.  The Burlington Chief of Police has commented that refugees have reduced crime in some historically troubled areas, creating more family oriented neighborhoods. 

Vermonters have played a tremendous role in welcoming refugees and asylees to their communities.  Many have hosted refugee families in their homes until suitable housing could be found.  The Ohavi Zedek Synagogue has made an effort to help all refugee families, regardless of their faith.  The synagogue offers free English language classes so that refugees can improve their English skills.  In this year’s Passover service, refugees were encouraged to share their own personal tales of exodus. 

The synagogue also runs a thrift shop where refugees who have been in the country for less than a year are allowed to take whatever they need without charge.  Yet, a refugee from Bhutan has offered to help make physical improvements to the building’s foundation, a testament to his desire to give back to the communities that have helped refugees build new lives.  Many other places of worships have also reached out to these new Vermonters.

The Association for Africans Living in Vermont (AALV), which now assists any refugee in Vermont regardless of the country of origin, helps refugees access social services, organizes community cultural events, and provides cross-cultural training to Vermont service providers.  The organization offers workforce development programs to ensure refugees can find meaningful work that sustains their families.  The AALV New Farms for New Americans program enables refugees, many of whom farmed in their home counties, to learn to grow crops well suited to the Vermont climate.  This program can connect such refugees to their heritage, and invites them to become part of Vermont’s longstanding and vibrant agricultural tradition.

In cooperation with Vermont Adult Learning, AALV offers the Personal Care Assistant Workforce Training Program, which trains refugees to serve as personal care assistants, the first level of service in the nursing profession.  Graduates are able to pursue additional training as a licensed nursing assistant. 

Vermont’s resettlement program and the community support are not without their challenges.  We experience many of the same hurdles faced by resettlement efforts and receiving communities across the Nation.  The Refugee Protection Act of 2011 includes provisions that will help the nationwide resettlement effort operate more effectively.  I want to acknowledge the leadership of Senator Lugar who has investigated the resettlement program and called for a GAO study to obtain recommendations for improvement.  I also appreciate the efforts of Representative Gary Peters of Michigan, who introduced a resettlement bill in the House of Representatives to improve communication among all stakeholders. 

In addition to support and improvement of the resettlement program, this bill addresses several areas of domestic asylum adjudication that are in need of significant reform.  This bill would repeal the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers, removing an unnecessary barrier to protection.  The bill would allow arriving aliens and minors to seek asylum first before the Asylum Office rather than referring those cases immediately to immigration court.  The Asylum Office is well trained to screen for fraud and able to handle a slight increase in its caseload.  Meanwhile, as we learned in a May 18, 2011, hearing before the Judiciary Committee, the immigration courts are overburdened, under-resourced, and facing steady increases in their caseloads.

The Refugee Protection Act ensures that persons who were victims of terrorism or persecution by terrorist groups will not be doubly victimized with a denial of protection in the United States.  Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates, a legal aid and torture treatment provider, continues to see cases where persons granted asylum are later blocked from bringing their families to the United States or applying for permanent residency by overly broad definitions in current law.  This bill would help such persons prove their cases without taking any shortcuts on national security.  The bill also gives the President the authority to designate certain groups of particularly vulnerable groups for expedited consideration.  All refugees would still have to complete security and background checks prior to entry to the United States. 

Finally, the bill addresses the need to treat genuine asylum seekers as persons in need of protection, not as criminals.  It calls for asylum seekers who can prove their identity and who pose no threat to the United States to be released from immigration detention.  Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates, like other legal aid providers across the Nation, struggle to visit detention facilities located at a distance from urban centers, or to reach clients who have been transferred to far away locations.  I appreciate efforts made by the Obama administration to parole eligible asylum seekers and to improve the conditions of detention overall, but more must be done. The Refugee Protection Act will improve access to counsel so that asylum seekers with genuine claims can gain legal assistance in presenting their claims.  It will require the Government to codify detention standards so that reforms are meaningful and enforceable. 

I ask unanimous consent to place in the Record a sectional analysis of the Refugee Protection Act of 2011.  I also ask unanimous consent to include in the Record a list of more than four dozen organizations and experts that have endorsed this bill. 

There is no question that the United States is leader among nations in refugee protection, but we can do better.  The refugees we welcome to our shores contribute to the fabric of our Nation, and enrich the communities where they settle.  I urge all Senators to support the Refugee Protection Act of 2011.  

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