A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators – the so-called “Gang of Eight" – today is expected unveil a proposal for immigration reform. The proposal has been in negotiations for weeks. But commentator William Holston feels something’s been missing from the discourse on this issue.
Mary was subjected to female genital mutilation in her Central African country in Guinea. This is a brutal assault administered to young girls according to tribal culture. After arriving in the United States to attend school, she was threatened by her family with an arranged marriage to a much older relative and a repeat performance of the genital mutilation. Based on these threats Mary applied for asylum. Sadly she was denied solely because she applied more than a year after arriving in the United States.
Imagine for a moment what it is like to leave everything you know and love behind to flee to another country where you do not know the culture or language.
It can take up to two years for a case heard in immigration court. In most cases the applicant is not permitted to work while the case is pending. They are not entitled to any food, housing or medical benefits. David, one of our clients at the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, actually slept in a car because he had nowhere else to live while his case was pending. Some clients show up with empty stomachs and nowhere to go. Others rely on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep or food to eat.
The news is filled with talk about Comprehensive Immigration Reform. But human rights concerns are noticeably absent from talk about comprehensive immigration reform. Congress needs to reform U.S. law to ensure that refugees who seek the protection of the United States are afforded access to a fair, effective and timely asylum adjudication.
We should eliminate the arbitrary one year filing deadline barring refugees from asylum. Often they do not apply within that narrow window, because they are traumatized, are unfamiliar with our laws, distrustful of government and afraid. Congress should commit sufficient staff resources so that our Immigration Courts reduce their backlog.
Some asylum seekers have been jailed upon entering the U.S.. We should explore cost-effective alternatives to detention such as periodic reporting to authorities, directed residence, community supervision arrangements. These alternatives also would improve access to lawyers for asylum seekers, because most detention centers are located hours from urban centers where most pro bono lawyers and agencies are located.
Jose was a young teenager from Honduras, violently assaulted because he refused to join a violent gang. Thousands of minors arrive in the United States without any parent, fleeing threats of violence. We should require a fair and efficient adjudication process authorizing legal representation for children, as well as persons with mental disabilities.
Perhaps no group in the world is as oppressed as women. Presently the law does not expressly provide for gender-based asylum claims. The definitions should be expanded to expressly include women targeted for persecution because of their gender.
On the wall of the Asylum office in Houston is a quote from President Obama:
"For over two centuries this nation has been a beacon of hope and opportunity, a place that has drawn enterprising men and women from around the world who have sought to build a life as good as their talents and hard work would allow." It's time our law made that hope a reality.
William Holston is Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.