Religion-based Refugee Admission

By Don Barnett on April 1, 1998

pp. 1, 6-8 in Immigration Review no. 31, Spring 1998

The stated goal of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is to help eradicate religious persecution around the world. Except for the specific case of Sudan, however, it imposes rather weak economic sanctions on countries found to be persecuting individuals because of their religious affiliation. In addition, those sanctions, such as they are, can be waived by the President at any time.

By contrast, the bill contains refugee and asylum provisions that could be significant. The bill authorizes a new State Department office to certify religions around the world whose adherents are persecuted — Christians in militant Islamic states and communist countries, notably China, are likely first candidates for such certification.

Members of the certified religion need not prove or even claim they are persecuted to be considered for refugee admission. They need merely "credibly claim" membership in the certified religion. U.S. officials seeking to bar such an individual from consideration, on the other hand, would be required to furnish an extensive, documented refutation of the applicant's claim with an opportunity for the applicant to challenge the denial. More documentary evidence is required to disprove a claim for refugee or asylee admission than is needed to prove one. Moreover, those managing to get to American shores without proper documents could use the same flexible legal criteria in making their case for asylum.

American Christian groups maintain that, without such a law, persecuted Christians will remain a small percentage of refugees resettled in the United States, even though Christians today constitute the world's largest persecuted religious community. They have a point. Group preferences and family chain migration have replaced flight from state persecution as the criterion for admission for most refugees to the United States. Practically the only way to extend the reach of the program is to add more preferred groups. From the bill's inception, the human rights community has been the scene of an embarrassing public fight over whether the bill is sufficiently "inclusive." The bill originally singled out Christians for special consideration but was quickly changed to cover members of any religion. Still, today the only public criticism of the refugee and asylum provisions is that they represent a "hierarchy of human rights" by mentioning religion at all. "The victims of torture, threatened assassination, female genital mutilation, and other horrors would get shorter shrift," writes Anthony Lewis of The New York Times. This is a disingenuous argument at best since our entire refugee policy is about a "hierarchy of human rights," with refugee law and federal rules extending extraordinary immigration privileges to at least 15 specific ethnic and/or religious groups.


Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997
Sec. 9. Modification of Refugee and Asylum Policy.
(a) CREDIBLE FEAR OF PERSECUTION DEFINED. — Any alien who can credibly claim membership in a persecuted community found to be subject to category 1 or category2 persecution in the most recent annual report sent by the Director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring to the Congress under section 6 shall be considered to have a credible fear of persecution within the meaning of section 235(b) (1)(B)(v) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.


The argument of conservative Christian groups that persecuted Christians are being ignored in favor of "trendy" humanitarian causes and preferred groups also needs comment. In 1997, Christian Evangelicals from the former Soviet Union equaled Soviet Jews in numbers admitted as refugees. Together, these two groups account for approximately 26,000 refugee admissions. So far in 1998, evangelicals are the leading refugee group from the former Soviet Union. This makes this group of Christians the third-largest group admitted by the U.S. refugee program after Cubans and Yugoslavs, even though very few would meet even the loosest standards for a claim of international protection.

Fighting religious persecution has enormous editorial page appeal. The bill garnered rave reviews from celebrity pundits even before it was unveiled and may yet become a major foreign policy crusade. It was the main legislative priority of the Christian Coalition last Fall and had the support of much of the human rights and religious community, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees. Despite this and the backing of House and Senate Republican leadership, the bill stalled because of opposition from business and the Clinton administration regarding trade restrictions. There had been no discussion of possible effects on refugee and asylee flows and likely there never will be. The New York Times magazine, for example, ran a long article on the bill in December 1997 that didn't even mention the refugee and asylum clauses in the bill. A new version of the bill, with broadened presidential authority to waive trade sanctions, will be debated on the House floor in April.

The bill has the clear goal of countermanding the more stringent asylum procedures found in the 1996 immigration bill. One of the provisions of the 1996 reform establishes an "expedited exclusion" procedure for foreigners who arrive in the United States without proper documentation or who later are discovered to have entered without the permission of immigration authorities. Under the new procedure, these entrants must convince an asylum officer that their fear of persecution is credible. If they don't, they can be summarily returned to their country of origin, or in some circumstances, a different country, without being permitted to apply for asylum. Those who arrive with valid documents but later decide to apply for asylum (a common means of application) must now do so within a year of arrival. To be considered for a full hearing, Wolf-Specter asylum claimants would be required to demonstrate not a "credible fear of persecution" but merely a "credible claim" of membership in a certified religion. According to the bill's supporters, asylum seekers from certified religions would have extra protection from expedited exclusion but would still have to prove their case at a full asylum hearing.

Refugee Admission Policy

Resettlement priority relates to persons applying overseas for refugee status, not persons already in the United States who are applying for asylum. It is essentially a place in line to be interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities. The Wolf-Specter bill would place beneficiaries among those of "special humanitarian concern" to the United States, in other words guarantee them a chance at an interview equal to that of any other preferred group. Again, supporters of the bill are quick to say that the bill only ensures that cases are heard for members of those religious groups deemed by the State Department to be severely persecuted. Granting of refugee status is not guaranteed. However, since only a small portion of potential refugees can be interviewed, the decision about priority can be the determining factor in obtaining the coveted immigrant status. Also, substituting "credible claim of membership" for "credible claim of persecution" when deciding who is a legitimate asylum seeker or refugee cannot help but lower the standards used to adjudicate a claim at every stage of the process.

The Wolf-Specter bill mandates that none of those currently favored by the refugee program are to be displaced by the new covered group. Presumably, this would protect 26,000 of those who have opted not to leave Russia and are still living there a year after being assigned refugee status.

Refugee quota numbers have been declining since 1992 and dropped to 78,000 for 1997. Non-governmental refugee-sponsoring organizations asked for a 43 percent increase in the refugee quota for 1998. (One of the reasons for which being that resettlement agencies need a large client base to justify overhead and staff!) In response, the Clinton administration reversed the downward trend in refugee admissions by raising the 1998 quota to 83,000. Including Cubans who enjoy the same benefits as refugees, the United States still took in nearly 100,000 refugees in 1997. To this number must be added asylees, whose numbers rose sharply after 1990. In 1997, despite expedited exclusion being in place for half of the year, asylum applications exceeded 100,000. In addition, the vast majority of asylum applicants will stay in the country regardless of the outcome of their hearings. Annual asylee and refugee admissions taken together are running near an all-time high since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. The Wolf-Specter bill will cause these numbers to rise even higher.

American refugee and asylum policy will stray even further from its original purpose under the proposed changes. And, if history is any guide, most of those taking advantage of the new legal cause will not be persecuted, yet the flow of refugee admissions will be expanded and the selection process further politicized as new groups jockey for preferred status.


The contents and status of The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997 (H.R. 2431) can be viewed on line at the Library of Congress' Thomas site,