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Why We Need the Refugee Protection Act

Claire O'Brien,
Washington Legislative Office
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May 20, 2010

Imagine fleeing for your life to escape persecution and civil war, and arriving in what you believe to be the safe harbor of the United States. Imagine a judge granting you asylum to stay in the United States, but then the U.S. government refuses to let you in because they say that when you were kidnapped at gunpoint by rebel forces in your homeland, and held captive in a training camp, you provided “material support” to the terrorist organization that imprisoned you. Instead of finding refuge and a new life in America, you’re then locked up in an immigration jail for nearly two years.

It sounds too unjust to be true, but it is a true story — Baskaram Balasundaram’s story — and it’s hardly the only case of an asylum-seeker being trapped for years in a system that mislabels legitimate asylum-seekers under an overly broad “material support” statute.

There’s also Abdala Warsame Abdille, who was beaten and kidnapped by a militia in his native Somalia, watched as that militia killed his cousin, and was then forced to stand in the middle of a road holding a gun, on threat of death. Abdille managed to escape and sought asylum in America, but the government argued, and an immigration judge agreed, that even though he acted involuntarily and under duress, he had provided “material support” to terrorists and was disqualified from asylum. After 20 months of unjust detention, with the help of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Abdille was finally released to his family this past April.

These are just two of the countless stories of asylum-seekers coming to America who have encountered unnecessary and unfair obstacles. But a bill making its way through the Senate would make critical reforms to asylum laws, policies, and procedures. The Refugee Protection Act would reform current U.S. asylum laws, including clarifying definitions of what actions constitute “material support” to ensure that the acts like those of Balansundaram and Abdille are not mislabeled as terrorist activities.

Aside from fixing overly broad “material support” definitions, the Refugee Protection Act also promotes efficient immigration proceedings by allowing the attorney general to appoint immigration counsel to ensure fair resolution or effective adjudication of proceedings. The bill establishes a nationwide, secure “alternatives to detention” program, and institutes detention reforms to ensure access to counsel, medical care, religious practice and family contact visits.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Refugee Protection Act yesterday; it’s crucial that the Senate acts swiftly to pass the bill. It will ensure justice and due process for asylum-seekers like Balasundaram, Abdille and all the others who come to America fleeing violence and persecution. It will ensure that those who are victims of terror do not get labeled among the terrorists from whom they are escaping.

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