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Renewing America’s Commitment to the Refugee Convention: Testimony of Patrick Giantonio Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary

May 20, 2010

via Patrick Giantonio of Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates:

I would like to give my deepest thanks to Senator Leahy and the Senate Judiciary Committee for inviting me to testify before you today.  It is a great honor to be here and to testify in support of the Refugee Protection Act of 2010.  This Bill, I believe, will usher in practical, secure and much needed changes to our refugee and asylum systems.

On this 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, it is an appropriate time to pause and reflect on just who these asylum seekers are and why we should care about them.  It is also time to reaffirm our commitment to maintain an asylum system that welcomes those who have fled persecution and torture.

This was the case for one of our clients – a 29 year old mother of three from the Republic of Congo who was arrested, detained, accused of anti-government activities because of her ethnicity, tortured, and raped repeatedly by military officers for more than a year before escaping and finding her way to the U.S. to seek asylum.

Most of these individuals never planned or intended to come to the United States.  Their path to security is often a frightening epic journey that leaves their loved ones and all they have known behind.

These are the asylum seekers that we are talking about and why the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 is important to pass and sign into law.

Regarding the One Year Filing Deadline:

Most individuals in this room will likely recall that the one year deadline to apply for asylum was enacted in 1996 with the intention of preventing fraud such as the filing of frivolous asylum claims to delay removal and gain a work authorization, as well as to address the substantial backlog which by 1994 had reached approximately 425,000 cases.  Actually, by 1996, the Immigration and Nationality Service (INS) had already implemented procedures that addressed issues of fraudulent applications, and imposed new restrictions on work authorizations for asylum seekers.

Importantly, the legislative intent in 1996 was very clear that the one year filing deadline should not bar legitimate asylum applicants from receiving protection.  In 1996, Senator Orin Hatch assured the Senate with the following quote, “I am committed to ensuring that those with legitimate claims of asylum are not returned to persecution, particularly for technical deficiencies.  If the time limit is not implemented fairly, I will be prepared to revisit this issue in a later Congress.”

Reasons for late filing of an asylum application can be related to fear of revealing the basis of the persecution such as domestic or sexual abuse, sexual orientation, lack of counsel, trauma related to torture, or loss of family and home.

The application of the one year rule has been rigid and has led to a constellation of unintended consequences – for applicants and the asylum system.  Thousands of meritorious asylum claims have been denied protection and returned into the hands of their persecutors simply because of not meeting the one year filing deadline.  Many of those who were denied asylum were then granted Withholding of Removal (“withholding”) or protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), both of which require a higher standard of proof than an asylum.

It is indisputable that the one year filing deadline has been needlessly contributing to the enormous burden and backlogs of our crippled immigration court system.

Repealing the one year filing deadline would increase efficiency and save resources, increase the level of protection for asylum seekers and maintain the U.S. commitment not to return bona fide refugees to persecution.

Closing

I believe that the changes proposed in the Refugee Protection Act are a very sensible and comprehensive package of much needed changes to law that will restore and ensure integrity and true protection in our refugee and asylum systems without compromising security.  Maintaining integrity and efficiency in these systems should not be a Republican or Democratic issue.  Our commitment to welcome refugees who have fled their homelands should also be non-partisan.  By passing this Bill and offering fair treatment and safe haven to refugees, we can illustrate to the world and to our own citizens our strength, our confidence and our compassion. Ultimately, any changes should act to maintain and strengthen these cornerstones of America’s immigration system.  Most importantly, we should continue, through our laws and through our actions, to be the spire of light that elicits hope and safety as we embrace and welcome the persecuted into our homes, our cities and our communities.  Mr. Chairman and Committee members, I believe this Bill moves us forward, decidedly, towards achieving these goals.

Thank You.

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