I would like to welcome you to this first hearing on asylum under my chairmanship of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration. This is a scene setting hearing, giving a broad overview of asylum policy, while identifying areas where corrections are due.
First, for the record let it be known that I intend to aggressively promote the proper treatment of those who arrive at our shores seeking freedom from persecution. In his 1801 First Annual Message, President Thomas Jefferson asked, "Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?" The answer is "yes" - America has provided and shall always provide asylum to those escaping tyranny. Further, it must be our continued aim that once reaching these shores, their persecution would end, their dignity would be restored, and justice would prevail. This is a practical expression of our core identity, renowned worldwide as the defender of human dignity for the most vulnerable and a gracious refuge of escape for those fleeing gross injustice.
We are a better nation because of the asylees among us. As we give refuge to people worldwide who are desperate because of extraordinary persecution, we are a better nation because of this generosity. Moreover, asylees, by definition, represent the best of American values. Often, they are people who have stood alone, at great personal cost, against hostile governments for principles which are fundamental to us such as political and religious liberty. Therefore, as Americans with a noble legacy, we must continue to examine our asylum policies with an eagle-eyed vigilance for fairness and justice for these most vulnerable asylee claimants.
Throughout our history as a nation, our refugee and asylum systems have reflected policy extremes. In 1939, more than 900 Jews aboard the SS St. Louis, who were within sight of Miami, were denied entry and forced to return to Europe where many were murdered in concentration camps. Yet when World War II ended, the United States led the effort to establish universal norms for human rights, resulting in the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 which included a right of asylum.
Over the next 30 years, the United States provided refuge to numerous people fleeing communism, including those involved in ‘underground' democracy movements in Hungary, Cuba, and Southeast Asia. Yet it was not until the Refugee Act of 1980 that Congress enacted a comprehensive system available to those with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." The Act provided that every person deemed inadmissible by an immigration officer at a port of entry had two rights: first, a right to a hearing before an immigration judge, and second, a right to appeal an adverse judicial order. This was the norm for several years until passage of a new law in 1996 entitled the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. Notably, judicial review was partially but significantly stripped and replaced with a process known as "expedited removal" producing flawed results, which will be discussed today. In this frequently employed procedure, an immigration officer is granted final authority to exclude particular classes of people (with a supervisor's authorization), without judicial review or right of appeal, barring re-entry for five years.
The policy challenge is two-fold. First, we must ensure that persons fleeing persecution are not wrongly turned away at our shores because of unfair procedures, which will be examined today. Second, it must be remembered throughout the asylum process that today's asylee applicant may be tomorrow's American citizen. Bottomline: all asylee applicants, future Americans or not, are entitled to humane treatment as a matter of justice.
Let common sense prevail. No one escaping religious persecution should be restricted in their reasonable access to chaplains and scripture studies while in a U.S. detention facility (if they should be there at all). No one escaping torture and barbarous incarceration because of their stand for democracy should be detained in a U.S. facility for several months or even years in a windowless room for 23 hours a day. This should not be. We are better than this and we can do better than this and there are some present problems in the asylum system we must begin to address. This is my goal: When this generation of asylees produces the next generation of Americans, I want that family story to be one of deliverance and celebration, and not of bureaucratic mishandling and poor treatment.
That is why I have invited three asylees from Afghanistan, the Congo and Tibet to testify today about their asylum experiences. Additionally, there are several more asylees in the audience, ready to talk with people after the hearing. [There will be approximately ten asylees in the audience from several countries including Iraq, Albania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.] Their dramatic stories should cause us to reflect on how we can do better.
Our distinguished witnesses include experts in their field and their testimony will provide an overview of asylum law while identifying problem areas. Such issues include: current INS detention practices; the annual 10,000 cap for asylee adjustment of status; "expedited removal" including punishment for use of false documents by those escaping persecution; and, the one-year filing deadline for asylum applicants.
I look forward to working together on this crucial task of promoting dignity, justice and humanity in our asylum system.
And now I am pleased to call the first panel.