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Jewish Groups Oppose U.S. Efforts to Impose Stricter Controls on Asylum

March 9, 2005
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Several American Jewish groups are lobbying against proposed immigration reforms that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month. At the same time, organizations are pressing for a provision to extend benefits to elderly and disabled refugees, including many immigrant Jews.

Immigration reform has grown increasingly important in Washington, as lawmakers seek measures that will protect the country from an influx of potential terrorists.

But the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and other Jewish groups fear that in an effort to fight terrorism, the United States will deny asylum to people facing religious and other types of persecution.

“We think the provisions will have a very detrimental effect on refugees, and it’s very inappropriate to say asylum is the preferred route for terrorists,” said Gideon Aronoff, HIAS’ vice president for government relations and public policy.

Jewish groups are particularly concerned about the REAL ID Act, which passed the House last month. The bill, provisions of which were originally proposed as part of intelligence reform that passed Congress last year, raises the bar for granting asylum to potential refugees. The legislation applies only to people seeking asylum once they are in this country.

In 2003, 26,000 people were granted asylum; 3,050 of them were from the former Soviet Union and Iran, Aronoff said.

He said it was impossible to say how many of them were Jewish.

“It certainly could and will effect some Jewish asylum seekers,” he added. “But the principal reason the Jewish community is engaged in this is because of the broader Jewish values of refugee protection” and the value of “welcoming the stranger.”

The bill says that bias would have to be the main reason for seeking asylum, rather than one reason among many.

Aronoff said it can sometimes be difficult to establish bias as the central reason for persecution.

For example, he said, if someone living in the former Soviet Union is attacked, told to “go to Israel” and then robbed, it would be difficult to tell if the motive were bias or robbery.

The law also requires corroborating evidence of abuse or bias, which officials say could be close to impossible to provide.

Judges could dismiss cases based on inconsistency with previous statements or because of a person’s demeanor, and asylum seekers could be returned to their home country while their cases are appealed.

“People fleeing persecution should go through rigorous security checks and make a substantial case, which they do,” said Stacey Burdett, assistant director of government and national affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

“The way this bill raises the standards could keep out legitimate asylum seekers and wouldn’t necessarily make our country safer.”

Proponents of the legislation say the asylum system has been abused by terrorists.

“Irresponsible judges have made the asylum laws vulnerable to fraud and abuse,” U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the bill’s sponsor, said on the House floor last month.

“We will end judge-imposed presumptions that benefit suspected terrorists in order to stop providing a safe haven to some of the worst people on Earth.”

The bill is not expected to pass the Senate by itself, but the Senate could be forced to take on the issue if, as expected, lawmakers in the House add the provision to its version of the supplemental spending bill. That bill appropriates funds for military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to the Palestinians.

The House was expected to take up the supplemental appropriations bill this week.

Jewish groups have been vocal in their opposition.

A letter to senators, sent late last month, asked them to reject the REAL ID Act, calling the bill “hasty” and “egregious.” It was signed by leaders of 18 Jewish organizations.

This week, the same coalition members — plus others — are pressing Congress to extend the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, benefit for refugees.

The aid — which provides a basic monthly income to people 65 or over, the disabled and the blind — is supposed to be cut off to refugees if they have not become naturalized citizens within seven years. But many elderly and disabled refugees have been unable to meet the language requirement, and others have been unable to manipulate the bureaucracy to gain citizenship in time.

“I think there are people who misunderstand the fact that seven years is not enough time for these refugees,” Aronoff said.

HIAS estimates that 20,000 people will lose their benefits by 2010, and 8,000 of those are refugees from the former Soviet Union. Many of them are Jews.

President Bush proposed a one-year extension of benefits as part of his budget request last month. He made a similar request last year, but the initiative did not pass Congress.

The language authorizing the extension was expected to be proposed in the Senate Finance Committee this week. Aronoff said he hoped a two-year extension would be broached.

HIAS was circulating a letter to Jewish groups this week, pressing the need for SSI as “life-sustaining assistance to the elderly and disabled.” Already 40 Jewish groups, including local community relations councils, have signed the letter, which will be sent to lawmakers in both the House and the Senate.

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