Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began debating the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight.” Within the more than 840 pages of this sweeping proposal are a handful of provisions that would address some of the dire challenges impacting survivors of torture as they attempt to navigate the complex, inefficient and sometimes illogical asylum process in the United States.
At our St. Paul Healing Center, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) helps survivors of torture rebuild their lives. With over half of our clients in the asylum process, CVT has a unique window into how challenges in the asylum system can exacerbate the severe mental-health effects of torture, making a survivor’s healing and adjustment even more difficult.
Our clients tell us repeatedly that the worst part of the asylum process is the waiting. In some cases, they wait for years to have the opportunity to present their claim to an immigration judge. During this time, they are often separated from family members, who may remain in danger overseas, and continue to face the terrifying possibility of being returned to their torturers. In this state of limbo, survivors struggle with reaching a place of safety and stabilization through which their healing process can truly begin.
The U.S. asylum system is designed to protect survivors of torture and other asylum seekers who come here in search of protection and healing but that system is badly broken and in urgent need of repair.
Recognizing this, the “Gang of Eight’s” proposal removes barriers, such as the asylum filing deadline, that delay the process and prevent asylum seekers from having their applications reviewed on the basis of their fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home countries. The bill bolsters the capacity of the immigration courts so that cases can move through the system without unnecessary delay. It improves the efficiency of the adjudication process by improving access to legal information and legal counsel so that immigrants facing removal can make informed decisions about their cases. It also enhances protections against arbitrary or prolonged detention and expands cost-effective alternatives to detention programs.
Now, however, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is attempting to gut the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” proposal by filing a series of amendments striking these critical protections from the bill, effectively turning those who have fled for their lives in search of protection into pawns in the political debate around immigration in this country. Comprehensive immigration reform should protect survivors of torture – and improve the efficiency of the asylum system – not maintain the untenable status quo.
As home to one of the largest refugee populations per capita in the United States, ensuring that immigration reform addresses these challenges is of particular importance to Minnesotans. Our state is home to tens of thousands of refugees from countries where torture is widespread and/or has been used systematically against civilians. CVT estimates there are more than 40,000 survivors of torture in Minnesota.
In the coming days and weeks, as the bipartisan immigration proposal continues to be debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken — both members of the committee — will have a unique opportunity to be influential voices for ensuring important fixes to the asylum system are included in the final immigration reform bill. CVT looks forward to seeing our senators continue to be leaders on behalf of refugees and survivors of torture in Minnesota and across the country.
Curt Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota-based international nongovernmental organization dedicated to healing survivors of torture and war trauma.
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