As a 70-year old humanitarian organization representing 37 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox communions and 33 refugee resettlement offices across the United States, Church World Service (CWS) urges members of the House Judiciary Committee to oppose H.R. 4731, The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act. Refugee resettlement is a longstanding, life-saving American tradition that has recently become unjustly maligned and politicized. In the midst of today’s global refugee crisis, the consequences of far-reaching legislation such as H.R. 4731 cannot be overstated. We know from sacred texts across faith traditions that nations will be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, the refugee, during trying times.
H.R. 4731 would impose a sharp reduction in refugee admissions by capping resettlement at 60,000 refugees per year and making any increase nearly impossible. At a time when the humanitarian community is facing the worst displacement crisis since World War II, reducing refugee admissions would only take our country backward. The United States leverages refugee resettlement to ensure that other countries keep their doors open to refugees, which is critical to regional stability. Legislation that would curb U.S. refugee admissions would sour U.S. foreign policy objectives and create a downward spiral in how refugees are treated worldwide. The bill would also reverse long-established refugee law that holds that while individuals must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution, they do not need to prove that they would be “singled out.” The impossibly high bar mandated by H.R. 4731 would deny protection to many of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. For instance, a Rwandan Tutsi would have to prove that she was targeted individually when a church in which she and others were hiding was set on fire. Similarly, a Syrian family whose neighborhood was devastated by chemical attacks because the Asaad regime suspected opposition sympathizers among them would be required to prove that attacks were “directed specifically at” each and every one of them.
By mandating that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) prioritize religious minorities, H.R. 4731 attempts, not-so-subtlety, to prevent Muslim refugees from being resettled to the United States. More than 600 religious leaders around the United States have already written Congress in opposition to similar legislation. It is paramount that the USRAP stay true to its mission to resettle the most vulnerable individuals who face persecution due to any of the five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. H.R. 4731 would, for the first time in U.S. history, prioritize one of those five grounds above the others. This would result in the United States denying access to protection for the most vulnerable individuals solely because they share a religion with the majority of their country’s population, even if they are fleeing persecution based on differences in interpretation or practice of that religion. Such policies would discriminate against Christian refugees fleeing political persecution in the Central African Republic, as well as ethnic minorities who are persecuted in Burma but practice Buddhism.
This legislation would also mandate expensive and redundant measures within the refugee screening processes, despite the fact that refugees are already the most vetted individuals to enter the United States. Every refugees undergoes biographic and bio-metric checks; medical screenings; DNA testing for family reunification cases; in-person interviews by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, and interagency checks with DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of State, Department of Defense, and National Counterterrorism Center. Mandatory supervisory review of all decisions; random case assignment; inter-agency national security teams; trained document experts; forensic testing of documents; and interpreter monitoring make the U.S. refugee screening process the more thorough in the world. H.R. 4731 would complicate the process, waste resources and likely grind to a halt the very time-sensitive screenings, despite the fact that robust national security measures are currently in place.
H.R. 4731 would triple the length of time a refugee must wait before applying for lawful permanent residency (LPR) from one year to three years, which would be a significant barrier to integration and family reunification. While refugees are authorized to work in the United States, employers, landlords, and local officials often look for a “green card,” the most easily identifiable document that signifies LPR status. Economic studies show that refugees provide substantial contributions to the workforce and to local economic development. By increasing barriers to integration, H.R. 4731 would injure communities in which refugees are trying to start new businesses, buy their first homes, and attain recertification in their advanced degrees. This bill would also place refugees under continual surveillance after they have arrived in the United States. U.S. law enforcement and national security agencies can already investigate any individual when there is cause to do so. But mandating surveillance solely based on the way in which an individual arrived to the United States is un-American and likely unconstitutional. Also, H.R. 4731 would revoke the refugee status of any refugee who returns to their country of origin. Current law already allows DHS to terminate refugee status on a case-by-case basis due to a refugee’s travel. However, many refugees have risked their lives to see a sick or dying loved one for the last time, to rescue a family member from harm, or to advance human rights causes. Such circumstances must be considered individually, as automatic termination could result in returning an individual to persecution in violation of U.S. and international law.
This legislation would allow state and local governments who “disapprove” of refugees to stop resettlement in their localities. This would violate anti-discrimination laws and infringe on the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration policy set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Even if state and local governments were to keep refugees from initially being resettled in their localities, refugees would move to those localities after their initial resettlement, in order to reunite with families and seek job opportunities. Refugees are lawfully present and free to move just like all persons in the United States. State and local governments would be merely be denying their localities and the refugees who will undoubtedly move there the expertise and support of refugee resettlement offices that help refugees rebuild their lives and contribute to their new communities.
The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act flies in the face of the very principles this nation was built upon and dishonors our shared humanity. As we all seek ways to meaningfully respond to global refugee crises, CWS urges all members of the House Judiciary Committee to oppose H.R. 4731 and any proposal that would reduce access to protection for refugees. Let us reflect the best of our nation by extending hospitality and leading by example so that other nations do the same.
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