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Statement of Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, National Immigrant Justice Center
Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) applauds Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) for their bicameral introduction of the Refugee Protection Act of 2016 to improve the United States’ asylum and refugee resettlement programs. NIJC appreciates the leadership of members of the Illinois Democratic delegation for co-sponsoring this bill.
The number of people fleeing persecution worldwide is at an historic high. Targeted violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria, are forcing families, children, and other vulnerable individuals to run for their lives. Too many reach safety only to be detained, denied due process, and quickly deported back to harm by the U.S. government, without opportunities to request asylum or seek protection before an immigration judge.
The Refugee Protection Act builds upon the Refugee Act of 1980 to strengthen the U.S. asylum system to ensure that asylum seekers have better access to lawyers and are not forced to pursue their legal cases from detention. The new bill includes the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016, which provides appointed legal counsel to children and other vulnerable individuals. In addition, the bill eliminates the arbitrary one-year filing deadline that unfairly denies many asylum seekers access to protection and limits the detention of asylum seekers by increasing access to alternatives to detention and to custody reviews before an immigration judge.
Under current U.S. law, immigrants—including children—do not have the right to court-appointed lawyers during immigration proceedings. In many cases, legal representation is the difference between deportation to harm and being able to safely stay in the United States. As NIJC provides legal services to thousands of asylum seekers and children every year, we have seen the devastating consequences when individuals cannot access counsel. Non-detained immigrants with representation are almost six times more likely to win their cases compared to those without representation, yet in fiscal year 2014, 45 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings did not have legal representation. For children, having lawyers is even more critical. Among children with representation, 73 percent are allowed to remain in the United States whereas only 15 percent of unrepresented children are allowed to stay.
The commonsense and compassionate provisions of the Refugee Protection Act of 2016 will ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are protected by the United States and restore our country’s reputation as a beacon of hope for those fleeing war and persecution.