WASHINGTON (May 10, 2006) — An official of Migration and Refugee Services/ United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (MRS/USCCB) said this nation can meet its national security protection goals without jeopardizing the tradition of welcoming refugees, asylum-seekers, and other vulnerable populations to its shores.
"It is clear that we live in a new world in which our nation must remain vigilant against outside threats," said Anastasia K. Brown. "However, we have the capability to protect the American public without sacrificing our traditional role as a safe haven for the oppressed of the world."
Ms. Brown is Director of Refugee Programs for MRS/USCCB. She testified on refugee protection issues (May 10) before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Rights, and International Operations.
The MRS official said the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which prohibits granting refugee status to anyone who is a terrorist or supports terrorist activity, is needed to ensure national security and to prevent the extension of refugee protection to those who are undeserving of protection. However, she added, recent legislation, including the USA Patriot Act and the REAL ID Act, expanded and broadened this law in ways that have had an unintended, negative impact on bona fide refugees. The REAL ID Act, for example, expanded the definition of "non-designated" terrorist organization to include a "group of two or more individuals, whether organized or not, which engages in, or has a subgroup which engages in any form of terrorist activity."
"These changes were ostensibly designed to protect the United States from genuine terrorist threats," Ms. Brown said. "However, they have had the effect of excluding refugees and asylum-seekers who have been victims of terrorism or brutal regimes from U.S. protection." She said that many Burmese refugees who have fled religious persecution have been impacted by the Administration's delay in interpreting this law because they may have contributed to ethnic or religious organizations that may be associated with sub-groups that oppose the repressive Burmese authorities. Providing any assistance to these organizations can render a person inadmissible under the law even if they were forced under "duress."
"This bar to admissibility is having a profound impact on the Burmese refugee population as a whole," Ms. Brown stated. She noted, for example, that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) referred to the United States 9,463 ethnic Karen refugees from Burma currently located in the Tham Hin refugee camp in Burma. In addition, the UNHCR in Malaysia referred 3,000 ethnic Chin living in Malaysia to the United States. However, the resettlement of some in these groups is in jeopardy, pending the release of guidance by the Department of Homeland Security regarding the interpretation and implementation of the definitions in the Patriot and REAL ID Acts. (Last week, the Department of State exercised its discretionary authority to determine that the material support bar is inapplicable to ethnic Karen refugees in the Tham Hin camp. Meanwhile, Karen refugees with similar claims in other camps cannot be considered, nor can Chin refugees in Malaysia be processed either).
Ms. Brown recommended four steps that the United States should take to address the needs of refugees around the world so that durable solutions can be found to resolve their plight. She said:
- "The Administration and Congress should move immediately to correct the damage caused by recent changes in law relating to material support. These changes were ill-considered. Moreover, they can be interpreted in an overly-broad manner, resulting in the possible denial of refugee protection to many deserving, bona fide refugees;
- The United States should increase funding for humanitarian assistance and resettlement assistance to the more than 13 million refugees in the world, including Cubans and Haitians who flee persecution just off U.S. shores;
- The United States should take steps to meet the annual refugee ceiling by making systemic changes to enhance and expand the U.S. admissions program;
- The United States government should pay immediate attention to special refugee populations, including Cuban and Haitian entrants; North Korean refugees fleeing their oppressive government; and Burmese refugees in Southeast Asia."