NEW YORK (Sep. 1)
As it becomes ever more difficult for foreigners to enter a United States wary of terrorism, several Jewish groups are urging immigration authorities to relax rules for asylum seekers.
A coalition of 15 Jewish groups is raising a red flag about the practice of turning away asylum seekers who have used false documents. They argue that refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries are being denied the right to “due process” when they come to the United States.
The groups, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti- Defamation League, have identified 200 cases in which asylum seekers were arrested before their claims were processed. In some cases, the refugees were carrying fake passports.
For their part, immigration authorities say asylum seekers are afforded due process — though it may be while they’re already while in detention.
Prosecuting asylum seekers in the United States poses a complicated problem. Using fraudulent documents is illegal, yet many refugees must use illegal means such as fake passports to escape dangerous situations in their home countries.
The plight of asylum seekers touches a particular nerve in the Jewish community. During World War II, many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were saved by Raoul Wallenberg and others who provided them with forged papers and passports to get out of Germany.
“Jews have been refugees themselves. We understand what this is about,” said Amy Weiner, assistant legislative director at the AJCommittee. “This issue of prosecuting asylum seekers just because of false documents struck a nerve because during the Holocaust Jews resorted to the use of false documents to get into this country.”
Today, she said, asylum seekers use false documents “not out of disrespect, but because they are often fleeing torture, rape, persecution and other dangers.”
Refugees in danger are not likely to approach government officials and fill out the appropriate forms, said Gideon Aronoff, Washington representative for HIAS.
That would be like saying, “If you want to come and get me and rape me and kill me, this is where I am,” Aronoff said.
In an Aug. 13 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the coalition of Jewish groups urged the U.S. government not to “compromise the promise of freedom that our country represents to persecuted people around the world.”
According to HIAS, the lead group behind the letter, some U.S. federal attorneys who are prosecuting detained asylum seekers are violating the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the U.S. ratified.
The convention requires countries to recognize that refugees sometimes must use false documents, and not to penalize them for illegal entry.
Colombian refugee Olga Quintero, 38, is a case in point.
Quintero arrived at Miami International Airport on Nov. 24, 2002, carrying a fake passport. Dangerous conditions had forced her to flee Colombia, and U.S. officials agreed she was eligible to enter the country as an asylum seeker.
Quintero was granted parole in the United States until her asylum hearing in March 2003. When she arrived for the hearing, however, she was arrested at the Fort Lauderdale airport and, ultimately, thrown in a maximum security federal prison.
She subsequently missed her hearing, and an order was issued in absentia for her deportation.
Garrison Courtney, a spokesperson for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, says detaining asylum seekers is normal procedure and that processing their claims is a “dual process” that takes place while asylum seekers are detained.
In response to the Jewish groups’ Aug. 13 letter, Courtney said the Homeland Security Department is looking into other options to afford due process to asylum seekers, including the possibility of using electronic monitoring devices so that they wouldn’t have to stay in detention centers.
Advocates of more conservative policies say that despite asylum seekers’ unique circumstances, letting people into the country with false documents is a potential threat to U.S. security.
“People have been exploiting our immigration system,” said John Keeley, a spokesman at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “That includes the humanitarian category of refugees and asylees.”
Some Islamic terrorists have entered the United States by claiming they need asylum, he said.
Even when refugees are in flight, there must be a security component to all areas of entry to the United States, Keeley said.
“Post-Sept. 11, it’s a different world,” he said.
So far, HIAS estimates that there have been 200 instances where asylum seekers were arrested and turned away, mostly in Miami and in the Washington area.
In an effort to prevent more cases, Jewish groups decided to appeal to federal officials, calling on them to grant hearings to refugees before they are prosecuted for using false documents. They’re not the first to address the issue; federal officials also have been lobbied by non-Jewish groups, including Amnesty International USA.
“Groups signing on are not saying that people should not be charged” for using false papers, Aronoff said. “But if that person is seeking asylum, their asylum should not be put into jeopardy by the timing of the decision to prosecute.”
If Wallenberg were doing today what he did for European Jewry more than half a century ago, the AJCommittee’s Weiner pointed out, he would be treated not as a hero but as a criminal.