January 7, 2014 STATEMENT–LIRS Statement for Hearing: “The Syrian Refugee Crisis”

Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

Press Contact: Tara Mulder, LIRS Director for Marketing and Communications
410-230-2756, tmulder@lirs.org

January 7, 2014 — Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national organization established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, welcomes the Senate Judiciary Committee’s attention to steps Congress and the Administration can take to address the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing the violent civil war in their home country.

Started by Lutheran congregations in 1939, LIRS walks with migrants and refugees through ministries of service and justice, transforming U.S. communities by ensuring that newcomers are not only self-sufficient but also become connected and contributing members of their adopted communities in the United States. Working with and through partners across the country, LIRS resettles refugees, reunites children with their families or provides loving homes for them, conducts policy advocacy, and pursues humanitarian alternatives to the immigration detention system.

Over the past 75 years, LIRS has welcomed almost 400,000 refugees to the United States on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Today LIRS partners with 20 affiliate sites across the country, primarily Lutheran social ministry organizations, to welcome arriving refugees into American communities.

“Sadly, the Syrian refugee population includes severely vulnerable individuals: women and girls at risk, survivors of torture and violence, and persons with serious medical needs or disabilities,” said Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “LIRS and our national network stand ready to do what it takes to welcome into U.S. communities the most vulnerable Syrian refugees who cannot return home or integrate in the countries currently hosting them.”

Resettlement is considered a durable solution and a last resort for only a small fraction of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. LIRS is proud to be one of nine agencies that partners with the federal government, particularly the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to be a part of this solution.

As the conflict in Syria continues to worsen, more than 2.3 million refugees, half of whom are children, have been forced to flee to neighboring countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is seeking to resettle approximately 40,000 particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees in FY 2014.

To date, few Syrians have been resettled in the United States. In FY 2013, the United States brought 69,930 refugees from around the globe to safety, a number closer to the annual Presidential determination than any year since 1980. This population included Iraqis, Burmese, Bhutanese, Somali and Cuban refugees. Refugees were welcomed into 186 communities in 49 states.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program offers refugees safe haven and a chance at a new life, while also bringing tangible benefits to the communities that welcome them. Having endured incredible hardship and unimaginable horrors in their home countries, refugees often spend years exiled in host countries once they flee, awaiting the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Once they are resettled, refugees routinely become engaged and productive community members, contributing economically, socially, and spiritually to our communities. The support of welcoming communities, congregations, volunteers, employers, schools, foster families and others makes resettlement a successful public-private partnership. The federal government, particularly PRM and ORR, and state governments also play a vital role.

The United States should commit to resettling a higher number of vulnerable Syrian refugees. However, for such a commitment to be successful, greater attention must be paid to the processes of admission to the United States and the welcome available to refugees once they arrive.

Increased Funding Needs and Necessary Resettlement Reforms

While private support plays an important role in the reception and integration of refugees, federal resources are critical to ensure refugees receive essential services. Refugee populations arriving to the United States have changed significantly since the formal establishment of the resettlement program in the Refugee Act of 1980. Today’s refugee population is much more diverse and vulnerable than it was more than three decades ago. Services also lack flexibility to be responsive to the diverse strengths and needs of refugees arriving today. Because funding has not kept up with these changes in ORR’s mandate and diversifying client needs, ORR has strained to provide sufficient support and services to all of the populations under its care.

Resources available to refugee families and adults through ORR have remained stagnant for many years. To ensure that Syrian refugees resettled in the United States would receive the help they need to locate housing, receive medical attention and employment assistance, among other services, and to promote self-sufficiency and long-term integration this funding must be increased. Additionally, an unexpected surge in unaccompanied migrant children, who arrive at U.S. borders alone and vulnerable, has put additional strain on ORR’s thin resources. Additional resources for ORR are desperately needed to provide quality care for not only arriving Syrian refugees, but also each and every individual escaping persecution to safety and dignity in the United States.

Reforms to Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds

In 2001, Congress enacted legislation that significantly broadened the definition of “terrorist activity.” Because the definition is overly broad, it encompassed some activities that had no real-life connection to terrorism. For many refugees and asylum seekers, the very circumstances that form the basis of their claim of persecution are interpreted in a way that denies them entry into the U.S.  Refugees and asylum seekers who are coerced into supporting “terrorist activity” or who have acted under duress may be denied protection by the U.S. government regardless of whether or not the “support” was voluntary.

Many vulnerable Syrian refugees who pose no threat to national security face denial of protection and resettlement in the United States due to unintended consequences of the overly-broad application of the “material support to terrorist organizations” bar (and related bars) to admission. Indeed, current law threatens to exclude any Syrians who fought with any armed opposition group in Syria (regardless of whether or not the individual applicant was involved in any violations of international humanitarian law or other crimes), anyone who provided “material support” to any opposition force or opposition fighter, anyone who solicited funds or members for such a force, and even anyone whose spouse or parent is found to have done these things.

These bars are duplicative and carry severe consequences. Refugees and asylees are additionally required to pass intense security screenings and background checks as part of the admission process. People who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, or who persecute others are inadmissible to the United States under other provisions of our immigration laws. However, overly broad “terrorism” bars prevent the ability of the United States to provide welcome to bona fide refugees seeking safety.

LIRS Recommendations

LIRS’s expertise, experience, and compassion drawn from decades of welcoming vulnerable newcomers inform our advocacy for just, humane treatment of people who seek protection in the United States and inspire the following recommendations.

To address current resettlement needs facing refugees, including the Syrian refugee crisis, and improve welcome for refugees in the United States, LIRS makes the following recommendations to Congress:

  • Ensure robust funding of DOS’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement to better protect and assist refugees overseas and those resettled to the United States.
  • Enact pending legislation to strengthen refugee protections and resettlement, including the Refugee Protection Act of 2013 (H.R. 1365/S. 645), the Domestic Refugee Resettlement Reform and Modernization Act (H.R. 1784/S. 883), and the Strengthening Refugee Resettlement Act (H.R. 651). Many of these reforms were also included in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744).
  • Amend problematic anti-terrorism provisions that define “material support” too broadly. Such reforms are included in the Refugee Protection Act of 2013 (H.R. 1365/S. 645).

Additionally, LIRS makes the following recommendations to the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice:

  • Implement discretionary authority to grant exemptions from provisions of U.S. immigration law that treat any rebellion against any established government as “terrorist activity” and any assistance to such a rebellion as “material support” to terrorism.
  • DHS should also complete a long-pending review of its legal interpretation of the term “material support.” The current application of the “material support” bar is greatly inflating the number of individuals and families unjustly affected by this provision of the immigration law.

Finally, LIRS is a member of Refugee Council USA and endorses the recommendations of the Council.

If you have any questions about this statement, please contact Brittney Nystrom, LIRS Director for Advocacy at bnystrom@lirs.org or 202.626.7943.