For the eighth time, Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced the Refugee Protection Act (RPA), a fitting end to a distinguished career devoted to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Since Leahy first introduced this legislation in 1999, the RPA has sought to restore these rights. The 2022 version of the bill goes even further, offering a much-needed affirmative vision of asylum in the United States and at its southern border, and expanded protections for persecuted and forcibly displaced people. Refugees International endorses the introduction of the RPA of 2022 and urges Congress to consider it a blueprint for a comprehensive update of our refugee protection system.
The Refugee Act of 1980 codified the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee in the Immigration and Nationality Act, created the federal program to resettle and support refugees, and called for the creation of procedures for people seeking asylum in the United States or at the border, regardless of status. But later legislation included provisions that made seeking asylum less fair and humane. In 1994, Congress required asylum seekers to wait 150 days from the filing of their applications before they became eligible to apply for work authorization. Two years later, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), established the expedited removal process, which mandated the detention of asylum seekers, deprived them of full and fair hearings on their claims, and resulted in the erroneous refoulement (or return to persecution) of many. Congress then passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which raised the evidentiary burden for asylum seekers and made it difficult for victims of terrorism to gain refuge. In 2008, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) was enacted to offer protection to victims of trafficking, crime, and unaccompanied children, but it did not fully address the protection needs of all migrant children and the handling of children’s asylum cases.
The RPA was first introduced in 1999 and 2001, and then five more times in the twenty-first century (2010, 2011, 2013, 2016, and 2019). The earliest versions of the RPA tried to ensure that expedited removal did not lead to refoulement and inhumane detention of asylum seekers. The subsequent versions of the RPA went further—adding clarification on who was eligible for asylum and their procedural rights, requiring appointed counsel for children in immigration proceedings and timely adjudication of petitions for family reunification by refugees and asylees, mandating assessment of the refugee resettlement program and the needs of resettled refugees, and calling for the regularization of stateless people.
The RPA of 2019 contained several provisions that bolstered the refugee resettlement program and the asylum system, then under attack by the Trump administration. For example, it sought to ensure reopening of asylum cases denied based on the Trump administration’s arbitrary dismissal of domestic violence-related claims. It also ensured that victims of trafficking or crime were not deported and set a floor for the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States each year.
In spite of the significant support it has garnered upon introduction over the years, the RPA never passed Congress, and as a result, the protection gaps it tried to fill have only grown. The 2022 RPA includes provisions protecting the right to seek asylum—needed now more than ever to prevent administrations from externalizing the obligation to protect those seeking refuge. For example, the 2022 RPA clarifies that merely transiting through a third country does not bar a person from seeking asylum at the border and mandates that asylum seekers who arrive at the border have their claims processed rather than be turned away or be returned to Mexico. It also ensures that asylum seekers are not prosecuted for illegal entry—a policy that violates the Refugee Convention and leads to family separation. It ensures that no asylum claim be dismissed without giving the applicant an opportunity to testify orally. In addition, it enables self-sufficiency and access to education: asylum seekers are eligible for work authorization 30 days after filing an asylum application, and colleges and universities must charge in-state tuition rates to refugees, asylees, and special immigrants.
But the 2022 RPA also goes beyond a defense of asylum and promotion of inclusion. It recognizes and extends complementary protection to people displaced by violence and the impacts of climate change. It also recognizes that Mexican children deserve the full protection of the TVPRA, that unaccompanied children throughout the Western Hemisphere need best interest determinations, and that Central American families belong together and should have pathways to unite. Regarding the latter, the RPA provides for the screening as safe sponsors of adult family members who arrive with children, creates a special parole program for Central American beneficiaries of approved family-based visas, and a special immigrant visa program for Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children with parents in the United States.
This year’s RPA also rebuilds and expands the U.S. Refugee Admissions program in concrete ways. It not only requires a minimum of 125,000 resettled refugees per year, but also mandates that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ensure that an adequate number of refugees are processed during the fiscal year to fulfill the refugee admissions goal. Further, it calls for a “roving resettlement support center” that can go to populations in need in new locations and increased referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and processing for resettlement, of refugees from the Western Hemisphere, especially from Central America fleeing gender-based or gang violence.
In these ways, the 2022 RPA not only defends asylum and refugee resettlement: it offers an affirmative and comprehensive framework for addressing forced displacement in the twenty-first century.
COVER PHOTO CAPTION: Welcoming postcards made by children for newly arrived refugees hang on a wall at non-profit resettlement organization Kent, Washington. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)