U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2006 - United States

United States


Refoulement/Physical Protection

The United States returned some 1,800 Haitian and 3,000 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 to enter the United States, but continued to detain them until they could find another country to accept them.

In May, the Congress passed the Real ID Act, which blocked the admission of refugees who had provided "material support" to terrorist organizations without exception for support given under duress or coercion. The Act also had an extremely broad definition of terrorism, extending to anyone who used a weapon or "dangerous device" with the intent of directly or indirectly endangering others or damaging property for any reason other than "personal monetary gain." A terrorist group was defined as a "group of two or more, whether organized or not which engages in or has a subgroup that engages in" terrorist activity.

The broad definition implicated members of and individuals associated with organizations like the Karen National Union, which has fought the military dictatorship in Myanmar, making such refugees inadmissible. The lack of an exception for those whose support was involuntary virtually halted the acceptance of Colombian refugees. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped referring Colombian refugees to the United States for resettlement because it estimated that the material support provision would block 70 percent of applicants, and other potential resettlement countries might not accept those the United States branded as terrorists. In one case, guerillas from the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia raped a woman, killed her husband, and stole their farm animals. Because the guerillas took her animals, UNHCR believed the United States might deem her to have given material support to the guerillas.

In addition to blocking resettlement, the material support provision stalled the claims of an estimated 500 asylum seekers in the United States and caused the rejection of an unknown number in immigration courts. It also barred recognized refugees from becoming permanent residents or citizens.

The Real ID Act also required asylum seekers to prove that their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion was "a central reason" for the persecution they experienced or feared. It also granted judges discretion to require asylum seekers to provide corroboration for their claims, a particular obstacle for refugees in detention.

Asylum seekers could appeal their cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and could appeal BIA decisions to the federal courts, but at considerable expense. Federal Judge Richard Posner issued a decision highly critical of the BIA in November, noting that courts in his circuit overturned 40 percent of BIA decisions before them. According to the decision, "the adjudication of these cases at the administrative level has fallen below the minimum standards of legal justice." In recent years, the BIA increasingly summarily approved decisions of immigration judges because of its heavy caseload.

Under the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Customs and Border Protection inspectors applied a policy of expedited removal, summarily expelling foreign nationals who arrived without proper documents, and barring their reentry for five years, unless they expressly stated a fear of return. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, found that inspectors also deported some 15 percent of those in a sample who did express fear of return. In some of these cases, the inspectors, without training in asylum law, deemed the stated fears to be unrelated to asylum criteria, but in most instances, according to USCIRF, they falsified sworn records to suggest that the applicants did not express fear. USCIRF also found that in many interviews, officers ridiculed applicants and made accusations and verbal threats. Furthermore, according to USCIRF, in a sample of cases, immigration judges grounded one-fourth of denials 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 BIA. Grant rates at the BIA 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 issue their affirmations of immigration judge denials without explanation.

The United States admitted about 53,800 refugees for resettlement and granted asylum to nearly 9,600 applicants. About 98,500 asylum applicants had cases pending at the close of the fiscal year.

Detention/Access to Courts

In December, Passaic County, New Jersey opted out of its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after numerous reports of detainee abuse in the Passaic Country jail and after ICE began transferring its detainees to other facilities. Earlier that month, detainees reported that guards had subdued and beat an Egyptian detainee, and in February, a detainee had committed suicide while under special watch in a disciplinary unit. In July, the Passaic County Sheriff clashed with federal investigators, ultimately throwing them out of the jail.

The Government held about 2,000 to 3,000 asylum seekers in detention on any given day, 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. ICE applied arbitrary and wildly variant parole policies. For instance, during 2004, it released 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. No law or regulation governed ICE parole decisions and no judge, not even administrative immigration judges, could review them.

ICE officials declared in February 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).

All resettled refugees received documents attesting to their legal status in the country. During the second half of the year, the United States began to reduce delays in issuing documents to asylum seekers.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Even when DHS did not detain asylum seekers in removal proceedings, it often required them to wear electronic monitoring ankle bracelets, to remain at home except for a few hours per week, and to make various appearances before authorities. The Government did not otherwise restrict the movement or residence of refugees or asylum seekers who were not in removal proceedings.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

The United States allowed refugees to work. Asylees received their work permits immediately upon grant of asylum, an improvement from past years when delays in documentation prevented them from working.

Asylum seekers, however, had to wait 180 days after they applied, not including any delays the applicants themselves may have caused. 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 it granted "withholding of removal" (a mandatory form of relief requiring finding that persecution was not just a risk, but likely). While the law authorized them, too, to work, the Social Security Administration issued them cards marked "Valid for Work Only with DHS Authorization," confusing many employers, who rejected them for lack of clear documentation.

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 the 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. The Real ID Act removed a cap on the number of asylees adjusting their status to permanent residence a prerequisite for citizenship which had created a 15-year backlog. Refugees were not subject to the adjustment cap, but even they had difficulty naturalizing within seven years due to bureaucratic delays. In any event, naturalization was not a prerequisite to enjoying public assistance on par with nationals under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.


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