CVT Statement to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on: “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”
Executive Director, Center for Victims of Torture
February 13, 2013
The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) commends Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for holding this hearing on “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” CVT is an international non-profit organization that provides treatment and rehabilitation services to torture survivors in the U.S. and abroad. Founded in Minnesota in 1985, CVT was the first organized program of care and rehabilitation for torture survivors in the U.S. and one of the very first in the world. To date, we have extended care to more than 21,000 victims of torture and war trauma at our healing sites in Minnesota, Africa and the Middle East. Our experience over 27 years has given us a unique perspective on the long-term devastation that torture inflicts on individuals and communities.
A high percentage of the survivors we treat in our clinic in St. Paul, MN are asylum seekers who have suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of repressive regimes. For those going through the asylum process, survivors of torture live with the constant fear that they may be returned to their torturer. Delays in the asylum and immigration court processes leave them in an agonizing state of legal limbo, during which they often spend years separated from family who may still be in danger overseas.
Receiving asylum in the United States is their lifeline, yet many face such dire obstacles as they seek protection and freedom that the flawed process itself exacerbates the severe mental health symptoms of the torture they’ve suffered. This makes their healing, adjustment and integration even more challenging.
CVT believes it is essential that immigration reform does not leave out vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their home countries because of torture and persecution. Specifically, CVT urges Congress to address the following:
- Eliminate the filing deadline for asylum-seekers.
Asylum seekers must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that they filed their application within one year of arrival in the United States or they are barred from asylum status, absent changed or extraordinary circumstances that led to their failure to file within one year. The deadline prevents legitimate asylum-seekers from having their asylum cases adjudicated on the merits and leads bona fide applicants, including survivors of torture, to be denied the protection they need and for which they are otherwise eligible, solely due to a technicality.
In addition to the negative consequences for applicants, the filing deadline leads cases that could otherwise be resolved with the asylum office to be referred to the immigration courts, resulting in long delays and contributing to the growing backlog of cases pending in the immigration courts.
- Refine the Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG) to target actual terrorists.
The overly-broad definitions of “terrorist” activity, “terrorist” organization and what constitutes “material support” to terrorism in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) should be revised. Presently, the terms are defined so broadly that for many individuals the circumstances triggering their ineligibility are their very basis for seeking asylum or refugee protection. To avoid mislabeling refugees as terrorists, the INA should be amended to explicitly recognize an exception for activities conducted as a result of coercion; the term “material,” as it relates to “material support,” should be defined as something of value given in the furtherance of terrorism; and the category of undesignated “tier three” terrorist organization standard should be eliminated.
The current discretionary exemption process is slow and overly bureaucratic, creating long delays with thousands of applications languishing “on hold.” Applicants “on hold” are in legal limbo and often remain separated from family members. For survivors of torture, these false labels and extended delays significantly impede their healing and rehabilitation process.
- Reform the immigration detention system.
For many survivors of torture, whose torture may have occurred while in a confinement setting, the immigration detention experience is often retraumatizing and may lead survivors to relive their horrid experiences of torture, contributing to further psychological damage. Torture survivors who seek asylum in the United States may be detained upon arrival at an airport or border port of entry or may be arrested on the border or in the interior of the United States prior to filing an application for relief. The detention experience is particularly detrimental to survivors of torture who, as a result of their torture, may already be struggling with severe anxiety, depression, sleep abnormalities, medical conditions, physical pain, and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are facing the possibility of deportation to country where they were tortured and where they fear being tortured again.
Whenever possible, torture survivors should not be detained. Immigration reform should eliminate provisions “mandating” detention, expand humane alternatives to detention programs—including community release programs, and improve due process and review standards to avoid arbitrary or prolonged detention.
When torture survivors seek asylum in the United States, they are seeking healing and protection from those responsible for their torture. The United States has a system designed to provide that save haven but that system is badly broken and in need of urgent repair. As Congress lays the groundwork for comprehensive immigration reform, it is essential that this reform does not leave out vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their home countries because of torture and persecution.
brobideau [at] cvt [dot] org
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