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Birthday for a Noble Act

March 16, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


This week marks the 30th Anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, signed into law on March 17, 1980. 

Prior to the Act, the U.S. had been admitting persons fleeing persecution, but the definition of refugee was set in the context of the Cold War.  Among other things, the Refugee Act attempted to end Cold War bias.  As Senator Edward Kennedy, author of the legislation, wrote in 1981, the new law provided,

a new definition of a refugee. The new definition no longer applies only to refugees "from communism" or certain areas of the Middle East; it now applies to all who meet the test of the United Nations Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees.

In other provisions of the Act, the annual number of refugee admission were increased, the Administration's "parole authority" was limited, a process for claiming asylum was set in law, federal programs were established to assist in the resettlement of refugees, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement was established.

Kennedy again:

The new law is intended to end years of ad hoc programs and different policies for different refugees by putting the U.S. refugee programs on a firm basis.

Cold War bias was not stamped out right away.  Through the 1980's and much of the '90s, most refugees came from the Soviet Union (and later the former Soviet Union), Southeast Asia, and Cuba.  By 1995, for example, 79% of refugees still came from these traditional Cold War sending areas.  In recent years, refugees from a broader range of countries where there is political violence and persecution benefit from refugee resettlement. 

In 2008, the top refugee nationalities were Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Iran, Cuba, Burundi, Somalia, Vietnam, and Ukraine.  The 2008 admission of more than 60,000 refugees continued an upward trend that started in 2002, when admissions reached a low of less than 27,000 due to new security procedures implemented in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11.  In the 1990s, the U.S. was admitting more than 100,000 refugees per year.

In the 1980s, the asylum system, too, was poisoned with Cold War bias.  Persons fleeing from Communist governments gained asylum at much higher rates than persons fleeing from, for example, El Salvador, where the U.S.-aligned government was slaughtering its subjects in large numbers.  Eventually, the bias was straightened out in the courts, and in 1990 the immigration service established an Asylum Corps of specially-trained officers to handle asylum cases.  In 2008, the top nationalities gaining asylum were China, Columbia, Haiti, Venezuela, and Iraq. 

There continue to be barriers in the law that prevent some deserving individuals from gaining refuge in the U.S.  Administrative and court interpretations of the law in recent years present a problem for some victims of domestic violence (discussed in detail here).  Interpretation of a provision of a 1996 law concerning "material support of terrorism" has presented problems for refugees and asylum seekers who have fought against repressive regimes. The one-year filing deadline for asylum-seekers has questionable merit and has led to documented cases of bona fide claims being denied.

These and other problems are addressed in new legislation introduced on March 15 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-NY) and Carl Levin (D-MI). (Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Daniel Akaka (D-HI) have signed on as co-sponsors.)

According to Senator Leahy in his press statement, the new legislation would

"…repeal the most harsh and unnecessary elements of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a law that had tragic consequences for asylum seekers.  It also corrects agency and court misinterpretations of law that limit access to safety in the United States for asylum seekers.  Finally, it modifies the immigration statute to ensure that innocent persons with valid claims are not unfairly barred from the United States by laws enacted after September 11, 2001, while leaving in place provisions that prevent dangerous terrorists from manipulating our immigration system.”

In the last 30 years, the U.S. has  granted protection from persecution and violence to millions of refugees and asylum seekers.  We continue to keep our doors open to such persons.  We can do more to treat those fleeing persecution more consistently.  S. 3113 will help us achieve that goal.

Photo by Flickr user: United Nations.

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