World Refugee Survey 2009: United States
During 2008, the United States granted asylum to around 20,500 individuals, and resettled nearly 60,200 refugees from other countries.
2008 Events Summary
The United States Coast Guard intercepted 1,600 Haitians and 2,200 Cubans at sea during 2008.
In January, a federal court convicted a Bosnian refugee of omitting military service on his military paperwork and fined him $1,000 and sentenced him to a year of probation. A second Bosnian refugee received a year of probation for the same offense in July, while charges against two others were dropped.
A Haitian detainee in deportation proceedings after a robbery conviction died in a Florida detention center in July.
In June, the U.S. Navy rescued a boat carrying 70 Somalis across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. The boat, which had been adrift for two days with engine problems, carried several passengers in need of immediate medical attention. The Navy treated these passengers for dehydration and malnutrition before turning all the passengers over to Somali authorities.
In July, the United States granted asylum to a North Korean refugee who had lived in Russia since October 2007 under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Authorities indicted a group of Russian immigrants in July, alleging they had accepted $3 from other immigrants in exchange for advice on how to falsify asylum claims, although few of their clients actually received asylum.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extended its grant of temporary protection to roughly 500 Sudanese in August, allowing them to remain in the country through early May, 2010.
A review of asylum cases heard by immigration judges improperly selected for their political views by the Bush Administration published by The New York Times in August revealed that they granted asylum less frequently than their non-politically-vetted brethren.
In Mississippi, unknown assailants stabbed a 19-year-old Haitian refugee to death in August.
A federal appeals court in the state of Washington granted asylum to a gay Jamaican man, finding there was a pattern of persecution toward gay men in his home country. The case marked the first time a U.S. court found such a pattern of persecution based on sexual orientation in any country.
In September, the Attorney General ordered the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to reconsider the asylum case of a Malian female genital mutilation (FGM) victim. The BIA had rejected her claim, reasoning that because she had suffered FGM already she had nothing further to fear in returning to Mali.
Law and Policy
The United States maintains a policy of interdicting Cubans and Haitians on the high seas and returning them to their country of nationality unless it determines any are refugees. The Coast Guard transfers those it finds to have a credible fear of return to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Department of Homeland Security officers interview them.
The United States is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees but is to the 1967 Protocol. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits refoulement and establishes procedures for admitting refugees and granting asylum. The amendments to the INA in the 2001 Patriot Act and the 2005 Real ID Act prevent the admission of many refugees, barring from resettlement or asylum any who gives “material support” in any form (including money, shelter, food, water, or clothing) to any organization the law deems terrorist, even if it is under duress. According to the amendments, any “group of two or more individuals, whether organized or not, which engages in, or has a subgroup that engages in” terrorist activity qualifies as a terrorist organization. The law does not limit its definition of “terrorist activity” to targeting civilians for political violence but includes any unlawful act using any “weapon or dangerous device (other than for mere personal monetary gain) … to cause substantial damage to property.”
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 (CAA) expanded the terrorism definitions and included provisions to grant exemptions. Certain insurgent groups are no longer considered “terrorist organizations” and people who assisted or supported them are now eligible for admission. In practice, the slow implementation of the Government's exemption authority has left the cases of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers on hold. In addition, thousands of applicants for adjustment of status who have already admitted to the US as refugees and asylees have not been able to get green cards or reunite with their families. Asylum seekers in removal proceedings have remained in detention while the government decides how to process these cases.
The Department of Homeland Security announced a duress exception for those compelled to aid groups that meet the broadest definition of terrorist, but not for similar victims of designated groups, such as Hizballah or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Under the INA, applicants are ineligible for asylum and refugees are deportable if they committed “aggravated felonies,” including any act of theft or violence punishable by a year or more in prison, whether or not they had been sentenced. They can apply for withholding of removal if persecution upon return is more likely than not, but are ineligible for this if a court had sentenced them to five years imprisonment or more. In such cases, their only avenue for relief is an application under the Convention against Torture.
Immigration officers have the authority to summarily order the deportation of newly arriving aliens without proper documentation or those legally in the country for under two years unless they express an intent to seek asylum or express a fear of torture or persecution at home under a policy known as expedited removal. If an immigration officer finds an asylum seeker has “credible fear,” an immigration judge will hear the full asylum claim. Asylum seekers have the right to appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and subsequently to federal courts. They can also retain counsel at their own expense, but the cost is prohibitive for many.
Detention/Access to Courts
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcements detains asylum seekers found to have credible fear in expedited removal proceedings. It does, however, offer parole to detainees on a case-by-case basis for detainees with serious medical conditions, pregnant women, unaccompanied juveniles, aliens who will be testifying in American legal proceedings, or if their continued detention is not in the public interest. Detainees must first prove their identity, and that they are neither flight risks nor dangers to the community. They must then prove they are in one of the five acceptable categories for parole.
Immigration officials detain asylum seekers at ports of entry for not having valid documents and detain some with proper documents if they intend to seek protection immediately. In a small number of cases, authorities use alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring bracelets, which allow asylum seekers to live in communities under supervision.
Refugees, asylees, and asylum seekers receive documents attesting to their legal status in the country.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Refugees and non-detained asylum seekers can travel freely within the United States. Asylum seekers have to notify ICE of changes in their address, and, if they are under supervised release, have to check in regularly with ICE. Authorities outfit some asylum seekers with electronic monitoring bracelets to track closely their whereabouts.
Refugees and asylees can apply for international travel documents. Backlogs in processing make it difficult for refugees and asylees to travel for work or to sudden events such as funerals.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Refugees and asylees can work legally, but the Government ceased issuing permits on arrival to refugees admitted for resettlement. Refugees receive the work permits by mail and sometimes have to wait longer than the official limit of 30 days.
Asylees obtain work permits automatically when the Government grants their cases, but asylum seekers have to wait 180 days after filing their asylum application before they can apply for a work permit. Many refugees and asylees work in the service industry because they cannot prove they are qualified for the professions they had practiced in their home countries.
Refugees, asylees, and asylum seekers with work permits have the full protection of labor laws.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provide two years work permits for asylees. Refugees and asylees can open bank accounts, own property, and run businesses.
Public Relief and Education
Refugees have access to education on par with nationals. Undocumented asylum seekers have virtually no access to public assistance, however, apart from public education and emergency medical services.
The United States aids refugees for eight months after arrival and asylees for the same period after the grant of asylum. Both refugees and asylees are eligible for public assistance for up to five years. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limits the eligibility for Social Security income to seven years for non-naturalized refugees, asylees, and Cuban or Haitian entrants who arrived after 1996.
Language barriers prevent many elderly refugees from passing naturalization exams, but the 1951 Convention does not require naturalization for public relief in any event. The law prevents relief agencies from providing services to undocumented immigrants.
Back to World Refugee Survey: 2009 >>