REAL ID Act a tragedy for asylum seekers
The passage last week of the REAL ID Act by Congress and the White House deals a serious blow to refugees' chances to find safe haven in the United States. Sadly, REAL ID is yet one more brick in the wall of laws and policies blocking asylum seekers and indicating a sharp retreat from the United States' commitment to human rights.
That this very controversial act was attached to the "must pass" supplementary spending bill for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as relief to tsunami victims makes it an unconscionable law, anti-democratic and a double insult to refugees.
Attaching the largely immigration-related act to the emergency spending bill for Iraq coerced lawmakers into voting for the bill (the Senate vote was unanimous) as there was not one senator who would vote against funding to support the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
REAL ID was introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. The bill was touted as a tool to deter terrorists from obtaining driver's licenses and utilizing the U.S. asylum system.
In truth, REAL ID will do absolutely nothing to stop terrorists from entering the United States.
Instead, it will make it much more difficult for deserving individuals who have weathered unimaginable human rights abuses to find a compassionate and just system to plead their case. Also, asylum seekers are given rigorous security checks.
Aside from provisions related to restrictions on driver's licenses, REAL ID gives immigration judges the power to reject an asylum applicant's case because of their demeanor.
Demeanor is not a good barometer of the merits of an asylum claim.
Refugee advocates understand that due to cultural differences as well as the effects of trauma, a refugee might not make eye contact with an official or authority figure.
Torture survivors sometimes respond quite differently than mainstream culture expects, such as smiling or giggling nervously while relating a horrific story of abuse.
This will undoubtedly result in the denial of the cases of well-deserving asylum seekers thereby returning them to torture and abuse in the hands of their persecutors.
REAL ID also gives asylum adjudicators the power to deny a claim due to material inconsistencies.
This could mean that a woman who has been raped by the military in her home country could be denied asylum because she states this fact to a judge after she initially feared to reveal it to the uniformed immigration officials who intercepted her at a U.S. airport. In a traumatized asylum seeker's life, the lack of safety, fear, difficulty in trusting authority figures and lack of understanding of the system they are entering can lead to inconsistencies in the story or testimony.
In many ways, these inconsistencies are survival skills.
Since 1995, the United States has seen the number of annual asylum claims drop from 150,000 to just over 30,000 last year. The introduction of REAL ID will most certainly pose increased obstacles to potential individuals fleeing persecution from their homeland.
The combination of the passage of REAL ID with bilateral agreements such as the Safe Third Country Agreement, which was implemented earlier this year and closes the door to Canada for most asylum seekers, illustrate a discouraging international trend where the gates of protection are much more difficult to access for refugees.
In many ways, these gates are being moved farther from the nations that have the capability to provide adequate protection to the nations and regions where the persecution occurred.
It is sadly ironic that many of the poorest countries in the world are also the nations hosting the vast majority of the world's refugees.
REAL ID should not be viewed as an anomaly.
It is part of a broader pattern that includes numerous post-9/11 setbacks to immigrants and refugee rights.
As refugee advocates decry the passage last week of the REAL ID Act, it's time for the United States to re-evaluate its commitment to providing safe haven to the world's most vulnerable and threatened individuals. We cannot allow some of America's most revered humanitarian values to be denied to those who deserve it most. Those values are vital threads in the fabric of human rights upon which this country was founded.
Patrick Giantonio is executive director of Vermont Refugee Assistance.MORE IN News
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