01.28.10

Leahy Introduces Refugee Opportunity Act

…Bill Will Help Put Refugees Working For U.S. Government Abroad On Path To Citizenship

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Thursday introduced legislation to provide an exception to the continued physical presence requirement for refugees who assist the U.S. government abroad during their first year in the United States.  The legislation is cosponsored by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). 

The Refugee Opportunity Act addresses a requirement that refugees must be physically present in the United States for a full year before being able to adjust their status to that of a lawful permanent resident.  The requirement places an unfair burden on refugees who are employed overseas by the U.S. government, or by a contractor working for the U.S. government.  Under current law, refugees are not permitted to count time spent working abroad toward the one-year requirement that must be fulfilled prior to gaining eligibility for lawful permanent residence. 

“There is no logical reason to deter refugees from taking U.S.-affiliated positions overseas, especially when they seek to serve the government that has offered them protection,” said Leahy.  “Our refugee policies have long been a beacon of hope and promise to many around the world.  The Refugee Opportunity Act is a sensible, appropriate, and overdue modification to our immigration law.” 

The Refugee Opportunity Act covers many types of federal service, including assistance to the military.  In a statement on the introduction of the legislation, Leahy cited the story of Ahmed Alrais, a refugee in Chicago who fled Iraq after working for the U.S. Army as an interpreter.  Later, Alrais joined the staff of a U.S. Army contractor and began work on a military base in Iraq.  Ironically, providing that service to the U.S. government overseas has delayed Alrais’ ability to obtain a green card under current immigration law.   

Leahy has been a longtime supporter of providing assistance where appropriate to foreign nationals who have made sacrifices to assist the United States in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

“By choosing to work, to support his family, and serve our nation’s military effort in Iraq, Mr. Alrais has sacrificed months toward obtaining a green card,” said Leahy.  “This bill recognizes the past and future contributions of refugees like Mr. Alrais, and will encourage more refugees to assist the United States’ efforts abroad.” 

Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which first considers immigration-related legislation.  Leahy also announced Tuesday that he intends to introduce legislation later this year to mark the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980 and to update refugee and asylum laws.  The legislation will build on the Refugee Protection Act, which Leahy introduced in the 106th and 107th Congresses.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy,
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On The Introduction Of The Refugee Opportunity Act

Senate Floor
January 28, 2010
 

One of the tragic legacies of the war in Iraq is the humanitarian crisis that grew out of the conflict, in which millions of people have been displaced both internally and externally, and in which many others have been killed in horrific acts of political and religious persecution.  Violent reprisals, kidnappings, and bombings were committed during the insurgency that rose up after May 2003, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations.  Diplomatic and military efforts to quell the insurgency and bring order to Iraq were aided by many brave Iraqi citizens, who, at great risk to themselves and their families, assisted the United States as interpreters or in other capacities.  These individuals took such risks knowing the dangers they faced, and many lost their lives. 

In 2007, I worked with Senator Ted Kennedy to enact legislation to provide special visas for Iraqi interpreters who had assisted the United States in Iraq, and who wished to resettle in the United States to escape the grave dangers they faced as a result of their cooperation with our Government.  I was proud to join Senator Kennedy in that effort.  The enactment of that legislation made clear our commitment to aiding those who had assisted the United States with the critical mission in Iraq.  It was the right thing to do. 

In 2008, I joined Senator Schumer in sponsoring the Military Personnel Citizenship Processing Act.  This legislation removed bureaucratic barriers to becoming U.S. citizens for immigrants serving in our military.  Congress enacted this legislation to recognize the contributions of immigrants who serve the United States, and to fulfill many soldiers’ dreams of becoming U.S. citizens.  Also in 2008, I worked with Senator Mikulski to enact the complementary Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act, a bill that made the pathway to citizenship for immigrants serving in the military simpler and more efficient.  Congress has spoken consistently in favor of recognizing the value of immigrants and refugees who embrace the United States through service to their adopted Nation.   

Today I introduce the Refugee Opportunity Act, legislation that builds upon this strong commitment by correcting an unfortunate limitation under current law.  The immigration statute requires a refugee who is resettled in the United States to remain on U.S. soil for a full year in order to adjust to lawful permanent residence.  For many, this requirement presents no obstacles.  The majority of resettled refugees immediately begin to work, learn English, and contribute to their local communities.  Yet, the one-year physical presence requirement poses a significant barrier to resettled refugees who are eager and willing to serve the United States Government overseas, whether as an engineer, a translator, or in some other meaningful capacity.  Accepting such employment will result in the delay of a refugee’s ability to adjust his or her status and fully integrate into our society.  There is no logical reason to deter these refugees from taking U.S.-affiliated positions overseas, especially when they seek to serve the Government that has offered them protection. 

One example of such a case can be found in the story of Mr. Ahmed Alrais.  Mr. Alrais came to the United States as a refugee with his family after he worked as an interpreter for the United States Army in Iraq.  His work for the Army led to threats against his life, and the United States appropriately granted him refugee status.  But then, after struggling to find work in the Chicago area, and wanting to provide for his family, Mr. Alrais decided to again face the risks of working in Iraq.  He joined the staff of a U.S. Army contractor and began to work on a military base in Iraq.  Ironically, taking this risk has delayed his ability to earn lawful permanent residence in the United States because the Department of Homeland Security will not give him credit toward the one year physical presence requirement for the time he has spent working with the Army contractor in Iraq.  If he had remained in the United States for a full year unemployed he would not have been penalized under the immigration law.  By choosing to work, to support his family, and serve our Nation’s military effort in Iraq, he has sacrificed months toward obtaining a green card.   

To recognize the past and future contributions of refugees like Mr. Alrais, this legislation proposes to create an exception in our immigration law to waive the continuous presence requirement for any refugee who, during their first year of residence in the United States, accepts employment overseas to aid the United States Government.  This legislation will not only recognize the commendable actions of refugees who wish to honor the United States by working for our Government overseas.  It will also enrich our Government’s military and diplomatic missions by drawing upon the professional and language skills of refugees.  Finally, this bill will encourage more refugees to assist the United States’ efforts abroad.  These are goals we should all support.   

Our refugee policies have long been a beacon of hope and promise to many around the world.  This legislation is the beginning of a renewed effort to improve and modernize our refugee policies to adapt to our changing world.  March 17 will mark the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, a law originally introduced by Senator Kennedy, a champion of refugees and asylum seekers.  I intend to introduce legislation this year to mark that important anniversary.  In the coming weeks, I will introduce a bill to enhance protections by bringing our refugee and asylum laws up to date.  This comprehensive refugee package will also build on legislation I introduced in the 106th and 107th Congresses, the Refugee Protection Act.  I will speak in greater detail on this comprehensive refugee protection package in the coming weeks. 

There is no reason to delay introduction of the bill I offer today, however.  In 2007, Congress recognized the value and the bravery of those refugees who assisted us in Iraq.  And once we pledge American protection, we must follow through with that promise.  The circumstances of Mr. Alrais and his family demonstrate the grave inequity that results from current law.  They escaped from tyranny and won protection here in the United States.  They hope to build a safe and stable life in our country.  They will contribute to our communities, educate their children, and become entwined in the fabric of the United States.  And the evidence of such dreams is already seen in the actions of this family.  Mr. Alrais’ wife, Nada Alkhaddar, helps other refugees adjust to life in Chicago under the auspices of a non-profit community organization.  Mr. Alrais’ 17-year-old son plays football at his Chicago high school and recently told a reporter that he wants to become a Chicago policeman—the embodiment of the public servant—“for America,” he said.   

I urge all Senators to join me in supporting the Refugee Opportunity Act, a sensible, appropriate, and overdue modification to our immigration law.   

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