In the early 1980’s, a Lithuanian sailor on a Soviet ship in an American port jumped overboard in an attempt to seek political asylum in the United States. Authorities on shore summarily returned him to the ship where he was promptly arrested for his “treason”. Many in America were rightly outraged and protested his “expedited removal” before he had a chance to seek asylum. Later these authorities admitted they had erred and that they should have afforded him due process rights to petition for protection under our asylum laws.
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced the expansion of the use of such “expedited removals”. Once again, people fleeing persecution can be summarily turned over to their persecutors – without given a chance to seek the protection of our nation.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops have consistently opposed the use of expedited removal as a violation of the basic human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and the norms of international law. The expansion of the use of expedited removal, in our view, could lead to the return of more bona fide asylum-seekers to their persecutors, resulting in further harm to them and possibly their deaths.
Our shores have been a haven for victims of persecution from the days of the Mayflower. Over the years the faces of these victims have changed but not their plight. Many are fearful and traumatized when they enter the United States and are unable to articulate their fear of persecution upon apprehension. Others are unaware that they have a right to ask for asylum. We are concerned that under this new policy, an entrant who might have a valid claim of asylum will not have the opportunity to express their fear. Victims of traffickers and smugglers, as well, who often are traumatized, could be returned to their captors under this new policy without being given the opportunity to ask for protection from further abuse.
Border Patrol agents are given an impossible and unfair task. They are asked to be judge and jury at the same time – in addition to their law enforcement duties. While the new policy acknowledges the possibility of referring refugees or those fleeing persecution to an immigration judge, it leaves too many unanswered questions. Is the type of training Border Patrol agents receive sufficient to ensure accuracy in their determinations as to the eligibility of those they apprehend to seek asylum protection? Will the procedures they will be asked to follow ensure some measure of due process? Will adequate safeguards be implemented to govern the process leading to a decision for “expedited removal”? Will interpreters and counsel be made available to apprehended aliens so that they can give “voice” to the pleas for protection?
Homeland Security is rightly concerned about making our country safe from those who would do it harm. At the same time, our nation traditionally has been a place of safe haven, a secure new homeland, for the world’s persecuted. Providing protection to refugees and asylum seekers and protecting the homeland from threats are not mutually excludable goals. Indeed, the reasons that cause people to seek protection in our nation are the very reasons why our country –its laws, its values, its way of life – deserve to be protected. And those very reasons demand that we give refugees and asylum seekers a fair hearing and not merely an “expedited removal” back into harm’s way.