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New Bill to Knock Sense into Asylum Law

On March 21, 2013, a press release announced that Senators Leahy and Lofgren introduced legislation to amend the laws governing political asylum in the U.S., to afford refugees and asylum seekers greater protection and remove senseless barriers to asylum.  The bills are S. 645, Refugee Protection Act, and H.R. 1635.  Though neither are publicly viewable yet, Senator Leahy issued a statement providing an outline of the protections to be afforded by the bill.

The most notable change is the repeal of “the one-year deadline for asylum seekers, removing an unnecessary barrier to protection.”  Under current law, people fleeing persecution must file for asylum within one year of entry to the U.S.  The law is barely forgiving, carving out some “exceptional circumstances” when applicants are excused for the lack of filing, such as being in legal status at the time, or the ineffective assistance of a lawyer.  However, the most common excuse, which is ignorance of this requirement, is just not good enough.  For these individuals, who are escaping persecution and are grappling with trauma and the severe psychological effects of the abuse they suffered in their native countries, the one-year asylum bar is a brutal and needless aspect of asylum law.  Therefore, the move to repeal the one-year bar is a welcome change.

Senator Leahy further stated that 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 is able to handle a slight increase in its caseload.”  The statement further states that the overburdened Immigration Court could benefit from the new process.  Currently, arriving aliens undergo a credible fear interview by an asylum officer.  If they establish a credible fear of returning to their country of origin., they are automatically referred to court.  As the Asylum Office is very well-equipped to make a determination regarding the grant of asylum to these individuals, empowering them to grant asylum would result in a more efficient disposition of these claims.

According to the press release, the legislation would also require “the immigration system to adhere to basic humane treatment for asylum seekers and others with access to counsel, religious practice, and visits for family.”  We are excited to see the specific details of the legislation, but laud the positive changes.

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