Building a Force of Zealous, Creative Refugee and Asylum Advocates

shutterstock_432808786According to UNHCR’s 2015 Global Trends Report, one out of every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum due to wars, conflict, and persecution that are not ending, but being met with impunity by governments and the international community.  No surprise then that we’ve seen an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum-seekers.  In 2014 alone, 13.9 million people became newly displaced – four times the number of the previous year.  As UNHCR reports, “Worldwide there were 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million were displaced inside their own countries, and 1.8 million people were awaiting the outcome of claims for asylum).”  These numbers, all increases from 2013, tell us that more people than at any other time in history have had to flee their homes to seek safety and freedom elsewhere.  Unable to turn to their own governments for protection, these refugees must depend on the compassion and humanity of foreign governments as they seek safety and freedom.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, recently said that we need an unprecedented humanitarian response to this unprecedented mass displacement. During this time of crisis, however, the response to refugees and asylum-seekers has most often been anything but welcoming and, in many countries, it has been outright hostile. In Europe, we have seen countries enter into agreements to send refugees away to third countries that are not safe, and we have even seen the approval of major changes in government structure, such as “Brexit,” fueled in large part by a desire to exclude non-citizens. Here within our own borders, the response has been equally alarming, with governors from Texas to Indiana doing their best to refuse to accept certain refugees simply because of their religion or country of origin, the Obama Administration’s detention and rapid refoulement of Central American mothers and their children, and hateful, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric permeating politics and the media.

So what can we do? We can pay attention and hold our own government accountable for its treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers within our own borders. What do we see when we pay attention to the current U.S. response? As the United States government seeks to balance the need for border security with our international and domestic obligations not to return refugees to situations of persecution and torture, we see that a humanitarian crisis has developed within our own borders. Unfortunately, however, there does not seem to be much “balance” in this regard, as the U.S. government has focused almost exclusively on increasing apprehension, detention, and deportation, without a corresponding focus on ensuring that our protection system has the resources required to appropriately respond. Some examples: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not adequately implemented and applied fear-based screening requirements before subjecting people to expedited and reinstatement of removal; there are not enough U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers to respond to the increase in need for credible and reasonable fear interviews; asylum officers are applying heightened credible and reasonable fear standards; there are lengthy backlogs before the asylum offices and immigration courts requiring applicants to wait multiple years before their asylum claims are heard by asylum officers and immigration judges, while other applicants are rushed through the system via prioritized or expedited processing; asylum-seekers – including women and children – are being subjected to lengthy periods of detention, far from the resources they need to present their claims; and asylum-seekers – many without legal representation – are faced with an increasingly complex legal framework for establishing asylum eligibility that is nearly impossible to understand or navigate on their own.

These problems, among others, have led to many bona fide refugees being returned to the danger from which they fled without having their fear-based protection claims heard in a meaningful way, or even heard at all.  What can we do when faced with the outdated and clumsy asylum system that doesn’t recognize the gang-based persecution, the domestic violence and abuse, and other untenable situations that people are fleeing from? We need to do everything we can to fight smarter and harder for our clients. How do we do that?

It is essential for practitioners to become well-versed in the laws, regulations, and policies impacting today’s asylum-seekers and to continue to pursue novel legal arguments and creative solutions. One great opportunity coming up is the AILA conference on Advanced Business and Removal issues in New York on October 10. I’m participating in a panel where we plan to discuss and provide strategies for addressing many of the challenges that permeate today’s asylum system, including: faulty CBP screening interviews; heightened credible and reasonable fear standards; the increased use of detention for asylum-seekers; the labyrinth of case law and multitude of judicial interpretations of asylum claims based on gang and domestic violence; and the broken affirmative and defensive asylum systems.  Our goal is to help build a force of zealous, creative advocates so together, we can hold our own government accountable. We cannot stand by while the asylum-seekers arriving at our border continue to be further victimized by the very system that was meant to protect them. Come join the fight!

Written by Dree Collopy, Author, AILA’s Asylum Primer

Interested in learning more about creative ways to fight for asylum-seekers? Check out the conference program for the October 10 AILA Advanced Business and Removals Conference to see more opportunities to increase your knowledge on these issues.

by Guest Blogger