Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Statement before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, House Judiciary Committee
Washington, DC, March 24, 1998
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting us here today to discuss with you the Administration's views on certain aspects of H.R. 2431, "the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act." As you know, the Administration strongly opposes H.R. 2431, for the reasons set out in an October 7, 1997 letter from Secretary Albright to the House International Relations Committee. That letter noted a number of serious defects in the bill, which if unchanged would result in the President's Senior Advisers recommending that the President veto the bill.
This hearing will focus on the immigration aspects of the bill. My colleagues will address the visa and INS-related provisions of the bill. I will concentrate briefly on those parts of Section 9 which deal specifically with refugee admissions.
Let me start by saying that the Administration shares many of the same concerns that prompted the authors of the bill to introduce this legislation. Religious tolerance and respect for human rights, in general, are at the very core of our national identity, and they are central to our foreign policy. It is impossible not to be outraged when governments act against people because of their beliefs, or fail to protect them from others who would do the same. Our commitment and our concern is clearly reflected in the refugee admissions program. Last year, we welcomed more than 70,000 refugees into the United States. We expect to admit up to 75,000 this year. More than half of these are people fleeing some form of religious or ethnic persecution. Muslims from Bosnia; religious minorities in Iran, Cuba, and Vietnam; Jews and evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union: All of these are identified as persons of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and all of them have access to the admissions program.
In addition to these specific groups, the United States also takes more than half of all the resettlement referrals worldwide from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those referred by the UNHCR may be from any nationality or background and frequently are victims of ethnic and religious strife in their homelands. In other words, Mr. Chairman, the United States remains the world's leader in helping refugees build new lives for themselves. We also are the catalyst for the international community's willingness to accept a share of the responsibility for caring for refugees.
But the United States cannot accept all of the refugees in the world. Nor should we create the expectation with the refugees themselves or with other countries that the U.S. can do so. Most refugees have found a temporary safe haven in their country of first asylum and will ultimately be able to repatriate to their own country. Others will resettle in their country of first asylum, with financial assistance from the U.S. and other countries provided through the UNHCR and other international organizations. Still others need resettlement in a third country. The international community, with U.S. leadership, should be responsive to this need.
With the U.S. admissions program reaching less than 1% of the worldwide refugee population, the way we determine which refugees the U.S. will accept is extremely important. Currently, the annual ceiling and composition of refugee admissions is established through dialogue between the Administration and Congress, with substantial input from public interest groups, private voluntary organizations, mutual assistance associations, and other organizations concerned with the welfare of refugees. These discussions focus on the protection needs of refugee populations, conditions in source countries, and on the types of solutions that may be best for particular groups and individuals.
In managing the admissions program, we rely on processing "priorities." Priority One includes refugees who are facing compelling security concerns in their countries of first asylum and who cannot return to their home countries because of the fear of persecution. This priority is available globally; we are actively seeking to make better use of it. Its availability should mean that refugees from religious persecution from anywhere in the world, who are truly in desperate situations, have access to the United States refugee admissions program.
Priority Two designates groups or nationalities eligible for refugee
processing because the United States has identified them as being
of special humanitarian concern. In deciding which groups to accord
this preference, we--in consultations with Congress and public
groups--look at the situation faced by the group in the country of first asylum, the urgency of its need for resettlement, the possibilities for resettlement in other countries, and our capacity to receive the group. Taking these considerations into account, we have in the past designated certain religious minorities, such as Iranian Bahais or Evangelical Christians in Cuba, as a P-2 category. We are willing to consider additional groups for inclusion in P-2 in appropriate circumstances.
One fundamental problem with H.R. 2431 is that it would replace this consultative, deliberative process with an automatic designation based on a single factor, divorced from overall refugee policy. Section 9(e) of the bill grants automatic access to the admissions program at the highest priority for certain victims of religious persecution-- i.e., those identified by the Director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring. Sections 9(f) and (g) declare that no other refugees will be disadvantaged by the automatic inclusion of these special groups, and section 9(h) establishes a period for public comment and review prior to the annual determination of the refugee admissions ceiling. Taken together, these provisions appear likely to:
First, circumvent the consultative process by which refugees are identified as eligible for resettlement;
Second, increase the overall number of refugees admitted into the U.S. without regard to other foreign and humanitarian policy considerations; and
Third, create a de facto hierarchy of human rights in which victims of religious persecution take precedence over other victims of persecution, including those persecuted because of their political opinion, race, ethnicity, or membership in a particular social group. We cannot support such results.
Specifically, the bill would appear to require us to accord P-2 status to any group designated by the Director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring. That designation would be made solely on the basis of religious conditions in the country of origin; it would not take into account issues such as whether the refugees are currently in countries offering temporary safe haven, or whether the U.S. Government can take on the burden of resettling the entire group. As a result, any member of the designated class--even an individual living in a safe location--would be eligible for refugee processing. The P-2 category would also be created without regard to the size of the population. While it is true that the number of refugees ultimately to be accepted into the United States would be determined in consultations with Congress, the eligibility of the individuals in the P-2 category for processing would certainly create the expectation within the group that they would be admitted to the United States. Thus, under this bill, a person without overall responsibility for the administration of the U.S. refugee program would make a determination which would create a category of individuals eligible for processing, even if the individuals are not in need of resettlement in the U.S. or exceed in numbers what the U.S. Government is prepared to accept. This automaticity serves neither U.S. Government nor international refugee policy.
The U.S. refugee admissions program needs to focus on those refugees for whom resettlement in the United States is the best option. This requires considered judgments of individual refugees or categories of refugees, not automatic designations that flow from decisions made by someone without refugee responsibilities, on the basis of a single consideration. The U.S. refugee admissions program also needs to be part of an international burdensharing program, which takes into account the contributions made by countries of first asylum and the possibilities of resettlement in other countries. We should not launch a program which creates the impression that the United States can or should take in all religious refugees.
While this automaticity is one of the major flaws we see in the bill, we have several other problems with it.
First, the bill creates a hierarchy of human rights in U.S. law in which victims of religious persecution take precedence over victims of all other types of persecution, such as victims of ethnic-cleansing, political dissidents, etc. Again, our refugee admissions program should focus on individuals in need of rescue, for whom other options are not available, whether the cause of their persecution is their religious belief, their race, their ethnicity, or their political opinion.
Second, the bill gives decision-making authority over an issue with profound implications for our refugee program to an individual who is not responsible to the President and the Congress for the administration of that program.
Third, it is not clear how the allocation of refugee numbers to victims of refugee persecution under this bill would be integrated with the existing congressional procedures for determining the funding for our refugee program or the numbers in our refugee admissions program.
Fourth, Section 9(h) makes each determination regarding refugee admission numbers subject to a period of public review and comment. As required by the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administration currently consults with the Congress on the President's proposed refugee admissions levels for each fiscal year. We also hold regularly scheduled meetings with the non-governmental organizations that carry out refugee resettlement all across the United States.
Finally, Section 9(g) would require that "refugees admitted to the United States as a result of the bill shall not displace other refugees in need of resettlement who would otherwise have been admitted in accordance with existing law and procedures." The intent and possible effect of this provision is unclear. In fact, more than half of the refugees the United States resettles are nationals of countries where religious or ethnically inspired violence and/or human rights abuses are primarily responsible for the need for resettlement.
To the extent the provision would require the President to disregard refugees admitted under the bill when counting the number of refugees admitted for purposes of our annual refugee ceilings, then the provision could result in a significant and costly increase in refugee admissions above agreed-upon ceilings and appropriations. If the provision alternatively is intended to be implemented within existing refugee admission ceilings and appropriations, then as a practical matter those fleeing religious persecution would in fact displace other refugees in need of resettlement once a relevant refugee ceiling is met. In either event, the results seems contrary to our long-standing bipartisan refugee policies.
In sum, we fully support the intent of the bill to protect and offer durable solutions to refugees fleeing religious persecution. But those solutions are not found solely in the United States and are not needed just by individuals fleeing religious persecution. Our refugee admission program needs to focus on individuals for whom resettlement in the United States is the best option. We are open to suggestions from the Congress on how better to accomplish that. However, we do not believe that we need new legislative authority or mandates to do so.
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