U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2005 - United States

United States


Refoulement/Asylum  The United States refouled some 3,100 Haitian and 1,500 Cuban asylum seekers it interdicted on the high seas while they were trying to reach Florida. The only way the Haitians could claim asylum was to shout their claim out on the Coast Guard vessel prior to return, but even this did not always work. The Coast Guard took those who passed the "shout" test to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba where Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asylum officers interviewed them on the merits of their claims. DHS, however, did not permit those they found to be refugees – only ten individuals and members of their families – to enter the United States, but continued to detain them until they could find another country to accept them.

Under the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Customs and Border Protection inspectors applied a policy of "expedited removal" and, unless the detainees expressly stated a fear of return, summarily expelled any foreign nationals who arrived without proper documents and barred their reentry for five years.

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found, however, that inspectors also deported some 15 percent of those in a sample who did express fears. In some of these cases, the inspectors deemed the stated fears to be unrelated to asylum criteria, but in most they falsified sworn records to suggest that the alien did not express any fear. USCIRF also found that in many interviews officers ridiculed applicants and made accusations and verbal threats. In one case, officers improperly encouraged an asylum seeker to withdraw his application. According to USCIRF, immigration judges grounded one-fourth of denials in a sample of cases on the fact that applicants added details to unreliable and incomplete records of claims they made to preliminary inspectors.

Applicants could still appeal negative decisions to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Grant rates at the Board for expedited removal cases, however, declined from 24 percent in 2001 to only 2 to 4 percent in 2002 – after the Department of Justice began requiring the Board, in most cases, to affirm immigration judge denials without explaining why.

In May 2005, the United States enacted "REAL ID" legislation that would require asylum applicants to establish that a "central reason" for their feared persecution was related to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; would allow adjudicators to find applicants not credible based on demeanor alone or on immaterial inconsistencies; and would suspend the right of habeas corpus to challenge orders of removal. It would also, however, eliminate the caps on the number of asylees acquiring permanent residence (10,000 per year) and refugees fleeing coercive population control (1,000 per year).

Detention  The Government detained thousands of asylum seekers, often in remote areas with limited access to legal counsel, mixing about half with criminals in county jails. Detention times varied, but persons the Government had held in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, who were later granted asylum, spent an average of ten months and as many as three-and-a-half years in detention. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) applied arbitrary and wildly variant parole policies, releasing only 0.5 percent of applicants with credible fears of persecution in New Orleans, LA and 4 percent in Newark, NJ, but 98 percent in Harlingen, TX and 94 percent in San Antonio, TX. ICE detention decisions were governed by no law or regulation and were not subject to judicial review, even by immigration judges. In October, an 81-year-old Haitian asylum seeker, Rev. Joseph Dantica, died in custody after authorities confiscated his medicine.

ICE officials declared that "Aliens who arrive by boat [generally Haitians] are subject to a national policy of continued detention, post-credible fear [determinations] in order to deter others from taking the life-threatening boat trip and ensure our maritime defense assets are not diverted from their national security mission" (emphasis added).

The U.S. Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, authorizing the construction of up to 40,000 more detention spaces over five years. For about 50 Cuban and Haitian asylum seekers detained on Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba, the Government planned to spend $10 million (or about $200,000 per refugee) in 2005 to construct facilities costing $3 million (or about $60,000 per refugee) per year to operate, making these by far the most expensively warehoused refugees in the world.

Right to Earn a Livelihood  The United States allowed refugees to work. Asylum seekers, however, had to wait until 180 days had elapsed after they applied – not including any delays the applicants themselves may have caused. And although asylees were legally entitled to work for the indefinite duration of their status, the Government only issued one-year work permits that cost $175 and took three months to renew. The Government also took from 90 to 120 days to issue work permits to those granted mandatory "withholding of removal" (which required showing a probability of persecution). While they, too, were legally authorized to work, the Social Security Administration issued them restricted cards marked "Valid for Work Only with DHS Authorization" confusing many employers who rejected them for lack of clear documentation.

Freedom of Movement  When DHS did not detain asylum seekers, it often required them to wear electronic monitoring devices on their ankles, to remain at home except for a few hours per week, and to make various appearances before the authorities. The Government did not restrict the movement or residence of refugees.

Public Relief and Education  The Government cut off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – need-based assistance to persons 65 or older, blind, or disabled – to some 2,400 refugees at the end of 2003 and planned to cut off about 20,000 more between 2004 and 2010. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limited eligibility for SSI to seven years for non-naturalized refugees, asylees, and Cuban/Haitian entrants if they entered after 1996 or, in the case of those reaching age 65, even if they came before 1996.

Many refugees could not naturalize in time because they could not pass the English language test – an especially great obstacle for the elderly. Federal law also arbitrarily capped the adjustment of status of asylees to permanent residence – a prerequisite for naturalization – at 10,000 per year, resulting in a backlog of up to15 years. Resettled refugees were not subject to the adjustment cap, but even they had difficulty naturalizing within seven years due to bureaucratic delays.

Copyright 2005, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants


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