Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Border & Immigration

Refugee Act Called An Expression Of Goodwill

Refugee Act Called An Expression Of Goodwill
Learn about efforts to modernize the Federal Refugee Protection Act, which turns 30 this year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. America, both the idea and the reality of our free and wealthy nation, has always been a beacon for immigrants. But, it's one thing to want to come here, it's quite another to know you will likely die if you don't. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Federal Refugee Protection Act, a landmark in U.S. humanitarian legislation. More than 2 million refugees have been admitted to the U.S. and begun new lives for themselves and their families. Now, there's an effort to amend the original act to focus on some of the changing politics and status of people seeking asylum in the U.S. Joining us to talk about refugee protection in the United States is my guest Timothy Griffiths. He is government affairs director for the Survivors of Torture International. And, Timothy, welcome to These Days.

TIMOTHY GRIFFITHS (Government Affairs Director, Survivors of Torture International): Well, thank you so much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Give us a little idea of what was happening in the U.S. at the time that the Refugee Protection Act became law.


GRIFFITHS: Yeah, absolutely. What was happening in the mid-seventies was that with the end of the Vietnam War, and conflicts in Southeast Asia, in particular, there was a refugee crisis, an enormous number of individuals who were coming to the United States out of that region because they were in desperate fear. They were literally running for their lives. They feared being tortured, being killed or being just severe violence if they remained in their country and expressed their views about who they were. And so the United States, up until that time, had dealt with all refugee crisis – crises on a pretty ad hoc basis, sort of figuring it out as things went along. So in 1980, a bipartisan coalition of legislators in Congress came together and put together the Refugee Protection Act of 1980. It was spearheaded by the late Senator Ted Kennedy and eventually signed by President Carter, but definitely Republicans and Democrats coming together to form a more permanent, more carefully thought out system and that’s what we’ve had for the last 30 years.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you say in the past refugee protection was done on an ad hoc basis, what would have to happen? Would Congress have to pass special legislation to allow a group of people in?

GRIFFITHS: Exactly. So, for example, during World War II was the sort of first refugee crisis based legislation, and Congress passed an act then that enabled about 400,000 refugees from Eastern Europe, amongst them Jews fleeing the atrocities taking place in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, and those folks were able to come to the United States under that act. But this was all a one-time – or at the time, they thought of it as a one-time, one-off operation. Then during the cold war, a number of folks from communist countries were seeking political freedom and so they came in numbers to the United States, and another act was passed in Congress to deal with that. But, again, none of this formed a permanent system that could deal with each refugee crisis or the number of sort of small hot spots and places of global oppression that are sort of constantly and unfortunately taking place throughout the globe.

CAVANAUGH: So this Refugee Protection Act of 1980 sort of codified things, put it in the hands of the State Department?

GRIFFITHS: There – It’s actually distributed in different parts of the government so, for example, resettlement services, which are the transitional services that the government provides to refugees once they’re in the United States, help with English language classes, for example, health screenings, all of that’s covered under the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Abroad, the United States does go and interview applicants for refugee status in refugee camps throughout the world and that’s handled by the Department of State and now, to some degree, by the Department of Homeland Security. So there’s – it’s a mixture of different government agencies.


CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Timothy Griffiths. He’s government affairs director for the Survivors of Torture International. We’re talking about the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Protection Act and also some amendments that are being proposed, a new Refugee Protection Act of 2010. Do we have any idea about how many people have been helped by this act over the past 30 years? What countries they’ve come from? What kinds of situations?

GRIFFITHS: Yeah, since 1975, which is a little bit before the act but since 1975, we know that 2.6 million refugees have come to the United States. Most of them have come out of China and out of Southeast Asian, but also Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In 2009, just to give you an idea of what the numbers are, more recently there were 74,000 – a little over 74,000 refugees and then there’s a separate system for folks who are already within the United States and fear having to return. That’s the asylum process, and there were 22,000 individuals granted asylum. The asylees in 2009 came from China, Ethiopia and Haiti, those were the primary countries of origin, and the refugees in 2009, the top three nations were Iraq, Burma and Bhutan.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us just a little – give us a little definition, the difference between a refugee and an asylee.

GRIFFITHS: Sure, it can be a little confusing.


GRIFFITHS: So a refugee is somebody who seeks protection in the United States or seeks to resettle, applies to resettle in the United States while they’re still outside of the United States. They’re still abroad. So, for example, many of the Iraqi refugees who are now living in San Diego County were in refugee camps in Jordan at the time that they applied for refugee status in the United States and then they are granted and they fly to the United States and are met by one of the local voluntary agencies that helps with resettlement. I think you’re going to hear from…


GRIFFITHS: …Bob Montgomery a little later…

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. In the second half of the show.

GRIFFITHS: …who heads one of those organizations. But asylees are folks who turn up in the United States. They – San Diego tends to be one of the highest or one of the most common destinations where folks apply for asylum because we have the largest and most highly transited land border. So folks turn up at the border and they say I seek asylum because I fear that I would be the subject of severe violence, harassment, potentially death if I return to my home country. And that’s not just based on crime or war generally but it’s because I’ve expressed a particular political point of view, I have a particular religion or I have a particular race or ethnicity or I’m part of a social group that makes me stand out and means that I will be particularly and specifically subjected to persecution.

CAVANAUGH: If, indeed, the Refugee Protection Act from 1980 has been so successful, why does the law need updating?

GRIFFITHS: Well, over the course of 30 years, while there have been a tremendous number of successes, at least 2.6 million of them, as we just talked about, there are a number of fixes that are needed. Just the passage of time and different legislation and policy that have meant that the act has not always functioned as well, not as fairly, not as effectively, and not as cost efficiently as it could. And so the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, which is introduced by Senator Leahy and is Senate Bill 3113, is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, would streamline and make the Refugee Act more fair and it would be more cost effective. And I’d be happy to go through some examples…


GRIFFITHS: …of ways it would do that.

CAVANAUGH: It’s my understanding that there has been some glitches since 9/11, the attacks of 9/11, with people being characterized as terrorists instead of the victims of terrorism. And I’m wondering, does, indeed, the Refugee Act of 2010 try to work through that? I know that the courts have had mixed rulings on that.

GRIFFITHS: That’s an excellent example of the type of thing that the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 seeks to correct. So I’ll give you a couple of quick examples. There was a gentleman from Burundi who was, while he was still in Burundi, was attacked by a rebel militant group within Burundi and they stole from him $4.00 and his lunch. He then came to seek refugee status in the United States, asylum status. The judge heard his story, agreed that he, you know, found it to be absolutely the case that he had had his lunch and $4.00 stolen from him but nonetheless found that that had been material support for this militant terrorist organization and, therefore, he was denied asylum. That’s the sort of unfair result that the current law – that can happen under the current law in which the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would correct.

CAVANAUGH: Unintended consequences, I’m sure.


CAVANAUGH: And from what I understand, the proposed changes of the Refugee Protection Act are actually supposed to be helpful to gays, lesbians and transgendered people around the world. Why is that?

GRIFFITHS: Well, they – In particular, one of the things that has become muddled over thee last 30 years is a question of what constitutes a particular membership in a particular social group. As I mentioned before, it’s not enough – you can’t receive refugee or asylum status in the United States merely because there’s a general state of violence or war happening in your country. You have to show that you specifically have been persecuted or would be subject to persecution on the basis of, as I mentioned before, expressing a particular political point of view, being of a particular race or ethnicity, of professing a particular religion and then there’s this last catch-all category, which is membership in a particular social group. And there’s been some back and forth over the years and the courts have come to different determinations about what that means. And one of the things that’s the current precedent is that one must be socially – be part of a socially visible group, discreet and socially visible group, that’s the legal standard. And that’s problematic as Judge Posner of the 7th District, is a very conservative judge, he said it’s crazy to require that someone who is – would be persecuted for their particular social characteristic would make themselves socially visible. That doesn’t make sense. They – If they’re fearful of being persecuted presumably they would hide themselves as much as they can. So the – but there has been another standard over the years which is more immutable characteristics, things that people either cannot or really just in the nature of who they are as a human being should not be asked to deny of themselves. And so gays and lesbians and transgendered individuals would be picked up more under that definition, under that legal standard, and that’s the legal standard that they – that the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would seek to incorporate.

CAVANAUGH: And from what I understand, it also changes sort of the definition of – or the understanding of what it means to be a stateless person, a person who can’t claim any country or origin, it’s just where you happen to be because you’re not a citizen of anywhere.

GRIFFITHS: That’s right, and situations like these do take place. It can seem sort of strange. I mean, how can you be from nowhere, but if no country accepts that you are a citizen of that country, all of a sudden you’re without a state and so that’s another excellent example of just not – not that there’s a major problem with the refugee system in general. On the contrary, it’s worked very, very well, but there are a series of little reforms and tweaks and things that can be improved to make the system work a little bit better and that’s what this act is all about.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering here in San Diego, as you are, as I say, the governmental affairs director for the Survivors of Torture International, what kind of work goes on with trying – working with the survivors of torture? What kind of counseling and support services does your organization offer?

GRIFFITHS: Well, as you can imagine, folks who are – who have endured torture, there are two elements to it. First of all, folks who have had to flee in a hurry and are coming and then – to the United States and then making a claim that they have been persecuted or that they have been tortured, are often leaving in an incredible hurry. A clinician from one of our colleague organizations tells what is a wonderful but tragic story of a woman who was – who had left in such a state of fear and panic that during a counseling session later she was describing how quickly she left and suddenly looked up at him and said, I wonder if I left the TV on in my home? That’s how quickly this can take place. So when folks come to the United States and then they wish to make a claim for asylum, they’ve got to go before a judge and prove their case, show that they have been persecuted or, in the case of our particular clients, that they have been tortured. And that can be a real challenge if you left with nothing, if you don’t even know if you turned the TV off. So one of the things that we do is we assist clients with documenting their cases. So we have doctors who, on a volunteer basis, and in some cases through UCSD, do forensic evaluations of our clients. They’ll look at the scar tissue that an individual may have. They’ll look just at the signs and symptoms that can – that come from the body, physical evidence of torture. And if that – if what they witness on the body of our client does back up the claim, the story, that this client is telling about what happened to them, they’ll go and testify in court. The doctors will go to court and testify as expert witnesses and put forth that testimony. Then the second part of it is that then we’re interested not just in helping folks document their claims but also deal with the lingering consequences, both physical and mental health consequences of torture. Torture is about breaking down the body, it’s about breaking down trust between human beings. It can make it very difficult for folks, no matter how resilient they are, and these are, by their nature, incredibly resilient and strong folks who have come from across the globe, escaped, survived but, nonetheless, there can be lingering effects. And, indeed, the safer someone begins to feel, the more some of these symptoms can come forth. So they can be things like flashbacks that could be triggered by supposing that you were tortured by a person in uniform, then possibly seeing a police officer in uniform might be very terrifying for you and could trigger flashbacks. It has to do with nightmares. We had a young man who was a student in the San Diego public schools and he had witnessed in his home country, tragically, the execution of his father. Understandably, he had difficulty sleeping at night. He often had nightmares, flashbacks and simply in that drowsy state of consciousness, these thoughts and memories that were so difficult for him would surge forth. It made it impossible, understandably, for him to sleep. That made it extremely difficult for him then to study and concentrate in school. He had great difficulties. I’m delighted to say that working with him and with some of his educators in the school, we were able to help him work through some of those issues, understand that these are partially normal reactions, that this is not a – so much an illness as a proper mental reaction to what is a really traumatic situation, and then work therapeutically with him to help him restore a sense of calm, help him know how to respond to those sorts of feelings, and he eventually was able to recover as a student and did very well as a young adult and doing very well in San Diego today.

CAVANAUGH: Tim, unfortunately, we are out of time, remarkably. I would like to close though by asking you where is the new Refugee Protection Act in the labyrinth of Congress? Is it near passage in any way?

GRIFFITHS: It’s actually sitting right now – it had a hearing earlier in the summer before the Senate Judiciary Committee on which our own Senator Feinstein sits. I, from my own point of view, and from the organization’s point of view, it’s unfortunate at this point that neither of our California Senators, Boxer or Feinstein, has chosen to co-sponsor the act. That’s not to say that they will refuse to do so one day but they haven’t yet. And we’d like to see them do that. California is the largest resettler of refugees in the United States. We resettle more asylum seekers than anywhere in the United States. This is a major issue for California. These are important reforms that would be positive for refugees and positive for the state of California and we’d like to see both of our Senators get on board.

CAVANAUGH: Timothy Griffiths, government affairs director, Survivors of Torture International, thank you.

GRIFFITHS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: After the break, we’ll continue this discussion about refugees and focus on refugee families resettling here in San Diego. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.