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The Immigration Bill No One's Talking About

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For the past several years, the American populace has been bitterly divided on how to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants living inside their country's borders. This is an important issue. However, it has for the same amount of years occupied almost everyone's time that they devote to the issue of immigration -- any form of it. The situation has become so tense that any other immigration reform that does not deal with this issue is marginalized or even ignored by legislators and the media.

One of the much-needed reforms in the immigration process deals with refugees who are seeking asylum in the US. While the process has been in dire need of overhaul to conform with the UN 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees for the past decade, few have raised the issue publicly because asylum-seekers do not sway the electoral process like the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in the US do. This was recently changed by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Carl Levin (D-MI) when they introduced the Refugees Protection Act of 2010 on March 15. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The proposal if it becomes law will, among other key provisions:

  • Eliminate the requirement that asylum applicants file their claim within one year of arrival.
  • Allow the Attorney General to appoint counsel where fair resolution or effective adjudication of the proceedings would be served by appointment of counsel.
  • Establish a nation-wide, secure "alternatives to detention" program.
  • Require changes in the immigration detention system to ensure asylum-seekers and others have access to counsel, medical care, religious practice, and visits from family.
  • Modify definitions in the statute to ensure that innocent asylum-seekers and refugees are not unfairly denied protection as a result of the material support and terrorism bars in the law, while ensuring that those with legitimate ties to terrorist activity will continue to be denied entry to the United States.
  • Eliminate the one year waiting period for refugees and asylees to apply for a green card.
  • Allow certain children and family members of refugees to be considered as derivative applicants for refugee status.
  • Prevent newly resettled refugees from slipping into poverty by adjusting the per capita refugee resettlement grant level annually for inflation and the cost of living.

On Wednesday, initial hearings on the bill were held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Senator Leahy is the Chair. Witnesses included Dan Glickman, President of Refugees International, Patrick Giantonio, Executive Director of Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates, and Igor V. Timofeyev, former Department of Homeland Security Special Adviser for Refugee and Asylees advisor. All three strongly supported the bill. Their support comes as no surprise. The act, if it becomes law, will right many wrongs.

The bill will affect the lives of thousands of asylum applicants, but it will most dramatically improve the condition of applicants who fear repercussions because of sexual orientation, religious conversion or ongoing conflicts in their countries of origin. The removal of the one year bar -- which stipulates that immigrants must apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the US -- would help people in these criteria.

Patrick Giantonio explained reasons for late filing past the arbitrary one year bar, "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 or reliable information, trauma related to torture, or loss of family members and home."

Rachel B. Tiven, the Executive Director of the Immigration Equality Action Fund, rightly points out the drawbacks of the current law for LGBT applicants: "We have always believed that LGBT asylum seekers are disproportionately affected by the one year filing deadline for asylum applications, because so many of them simply don't know that the persecution they faced as sexual minorities could be grounds for asylum here... Eliminating this unfair deadline will help many LGBT and HIV-positive victims of persecution obtain safe haven in the United States."

The International Rescue Committee has also been vocal about this bill. Robert Carey, IRC Vice President for Migration and Resettlement Policy, recently backed the bill: "We've been seeking consistent treatment of Haitians interdicted at sea for years. Perhaps the earthquake in Haiti will help focus attention on the need to ensure their asylum claims are carefully considered. Current practices violate international humanitarian treaties; the United States should explicitly give intercepted Haitians the opportunity for a fair hearing. The Leahy bill would do this."

But as this important legislation lingers in the committee, it is surprising to see that almost no media outlet has picked up the story. And even though the lives of thousands of asylum seekers are literally on the line because of unfair stipulations in the law, the new Arizona law is on everyone's minds because it will in the end sway voters. Come November, the Latino community in the United States will be feverishly pursued by both parties. And in order to secure those votes, legislation that will provide a meaningful remedy to the question of 11 million undocumented immigrants will not be tackled by either party.

The Refugees Protection Act of 2010 needs to be talked about and expedited. It already has support from several refugee and human rights organizations including, Immigration Equality, Human Rights First, Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee.

While it is paramount that the issue of undocumented immigrants in the US be addressed, refugee protection must not be ignored simply because it is not seen as an election issue. The Refugees Protection Act of 2010 is a remedy to a problem that has been largely ignored. It is already in the senate and it needs to be paid attention to by the media, politicians and the population at large.

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