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Lost in America on World Refugee Day

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Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. Let's commemorate the occasion by rethinking the way we treat those who come to America after escaping persecution or torture.

In March of 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unexpectedly released Ahmed (not his real name) onto the streets of Elizabeth, NJ. A journalist, he had escaped the political chaos of Somalia, where he had been tortured by Al Shabaab, to seek asylum in the United States. Upon arrival at Newark Airport, he was seized by the Department of Homeland Security, and incarcerated in the Elizabeth Detention Center for three months.

Ahmed's detention was relatively short: while at Elizabeth, the U.S. changed its policy of detaining most arriving asylum seekers for prolonged periods of time. Under the previous Administration, people who were fleeing threats of incarceration for their beliefs were ironically incarcerated for many months by the Department of Homeland Security upon arrival in the United States. The Obama Administration changed the policy and reduced the amount of time which asylum seekers had to spend behind bars. Under the new policy, asylum seekers with a "credible fear" of persecution would be released if they could establish identity and that they posed neither a flight nor a security risk.

That was the good news for Ahmed, who was one of the lucky ones to benefit from this policy change. The bad news was that that once "sprung" from Elizabeth, Ahmed had to fend for himself with both hands tied behind his back: He ran smack into the reality that those seeking asylum in America are allowed neither public assistance nor authorization to work to support themselves. Until his final asylum hearing three months later, Ahmed was entirely reliant on the kindness of friends, strangers, charitable organizations and religious institutions for food, lodging, and living expenses.

In 1995, to stem abuses of the system by those who did not fear persecution but who applied for asylum to receive work authorization, the U.S. government stopped issuing work authorization to all asylum seekers until their claims had been pending for six months and -- in many cases -- even longer. While this policy succeeded in ending that abuse, it is the legitimate asylum seekers who pay the price. The U.S. government expects them to support themselves without working or receiving any public assistance. Even those like Ahmed -- who have already convinced DHS that they have a credible fear of persecution -- are expected to survive through charity and prayers alone.

Again, Ahmed was relatively lucky. My organization, HIAS, was able to give him some assistance through our Vivian G. Prins Program for Artists, Scientists, Scholars and Professionals at Risk. But, ultimately, he was left with the following choices: to seek charity, break the law and work under the table, or go hungry and homeless.

This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of the international treaty to protect asylum seekers -- the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. On this anniversary, how is it possible that a republic founded by refugees, the United States of America, incarcerates asylum seekers like Ahmed, and then releases them onto the streets of Elizabeth, New Jersey, with no legal way to feed themselves?

In March 2010, to honor the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2010. Like so much other legislation in these bi-partisan times, it went nowhere. On Wednesday, a version of the bill was re-introduced in both houses by Senator Leahy and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA )as the Refugee Protection Act of 2011.

The Refugee Protection Act, if enacted, will not solve all of the problems afflicting the U.S. asylum and refugee systems, but it is certainly a big step in the right direction, and would eliminate many of the arbitrary deadlines and detention practices which plague asylum seekers. It would help roll back unfair assumptions made by our system that those who flee terrorism are terrorists themselves. At HIAS, we can't help but be reminded of the days when German Jews were excluded from the United States because, coming from a Nazi country, they were seen as posing a security threat.

Ahmed was eventually granted asylum. Today, he finally has the right to work. He is leading a productive life, living and working. His rough introduction to American life is but a painful memory. However, there are hundreds of other asylum seekers across the U.S. who have already been judged to have a "credible fear of persecution," yet are barred from employment. They must continue to rely on the kindness of strangers and remain at risk because of our unwillingness to live up to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Today, as we commemorate World Refugee Day, we should resolve not to force those who have been tortured or threatened because of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation to choose between going hungry in America or breaking the law in America. That is un-American, and Congress needs to do something about it. Pass the Refugee Protection Act, and go further: allow those asylum seekers with a credible fear of persecution to support themselves while they await the final judgment of their asylum claim.