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Refugee Act turns 30, undergoes examination at Penn State Law

Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people, and last year the United States resettled more refugees than any other country—80,000. But the road to gaining asylum in the United States is anything but predictable. Major players from the human rights, immigration, and advocacy community gathered at Penn State Law to ask two fundamental questions about the now 30-year-old Refugee Act: how did we get here, and where do we go from here?

“Today, we have gathered the nation’s top refugee experts and scholars to examine the development of refugee law and policy in the U.S. and offer recommendations for ensuring that standards put in place by the Refugee Act are actually followed,” said Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights. She organized the event that allowed attorneys and advocates to debate legislative solutions moving forward and to ask whether current refugee law and policy is consistent with the principles in the Refugee Act.

History and Development of Domestic Refugee Law

Professor Regina Germain, author of A Practical Guide to U.S. Asylum Law and Procedure, outlined the origins of the Refugee Act of 1980 and the evolution of substantive law and procedures. She emphasized that the rules governing substantive asylum law change “almost every year.” Germain, who teaches asylum law at the University of Denver, explained that the United States is “the only Western country in the world” that treats asylum seekers so poorly, forbidding them for working for 6 months while simultaneously excluding them from obtaining public benefits. “We lose the moral high ground,” she said.

Elizabeth Dallam emphasized the need to increase judicial training and to correct administrative voids that lead to absurd results, such as the failure of the United States to appoint counsel for asylum seekers. This administrative void has disastrous consequences for vulnerable asylum seekers like people who are mentally ill or infants, who are expected to prepare their own asylum applications without assistance of a counsel. Dallam is a senior protection officer in the Washington, D.C. office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Refugees, the UN agency charged with protecting and assisting the world’s refugees. She credited the United States for its financial support of UNHCR and intake of refugees.

Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, spoke about the history of violence against women that by its nature deprives women of their families and communities. “Gender-based asylum cases are often very complex and often represent more than one perpetrator and often non-state actors,” she said. Founded in 1997, the Tahirih Justice Center is one of the nation’s foremost pro bono legal advocacy organizations for women and girls facing human rights abuses such as rape, female genital mutilation, human trafficking, widow rituals, and torture.

While the U.S. was one of the first countries to address the “gender gap” in recognizing refugee status, Smoot explained that decisional law makes “hairpin turns” and treats women differently depending on factors beyond their control. “Not only are we not on firm ground in field of gender based asylum, a lot of time sit feels like we’re struggling in quicksand,” she said, pointing out that immigration judges can “grossly misunderstand” the nature of the violence against women as a one-time event and neglect to understand the “womb to tomb” oppression that Tahirih clients face.

Smoot later said that she doesn’t get discouraged—it would be a “luxury” she couldn’t afford. She focuses on clients at the Tahirih Justice Center who inspire her, like the Sudanese woman who escaped an abusive marriage by walking with her children in the middle of the night and crossing a minefield to get to the United States and apply for asylum status.

Moving Forward

The second panel focused on reforming refugee law. Tara Magner, senior counsel to the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, discussed the substantive provisions of the Refugee Protection Act introduced by Senator Leahy and addressed the many factors that stand in the way of meaningful change. “The landscape is challenging to be sure,” she said.

Annie Sovcik, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First in Washington, D.C., discussed the advocacy efforts of Human Rights First and summarized how difficult it can be to obtain meaningful change with the dizzying array of federal agencies and entities that govern refugee law.

Heather Hoechst ’12 said, “I found it really informative and it was especially nice to hear from both the advocates who had direct representation of refugees and from the individuals who are working from the policy side,” noting that she especially appreciated learning about the proposed Refugee Protection Act. 

The event was sponsored by the Center for Immigrants’ Rights, an immigration clinic where students work on innovative advocacy and policy projects relating to U.S. immigration, primarily through representation of immigration organizations.

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