United States Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican-South Carolina, joined at right by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat-California, the ranking member, speaks during a bill markup in his panel as he tries to change asylum laws on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. 

2019 AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate Judiciary Committee on August 1, 2019, forwarded a bill to the full Senate that would all but shut US doors to Central American refugees, Human Rights Watch said today. The Secure and Protect Act (S.1494), introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham, would transform the Trump administration’s draconian administrative measures into law, preventing Central Americans, particularly children and families, from seeking or obtaining asylum.

The bill would essentially extinguish the right of Central Americans to seek asylum, replacing it with an entirely discretionary refugee resettlement program. The resettlement program allows the United States to admit refugees from overseas but does not require it to do so. The change would leave the vast majority of Central American refugees unprotected.

“Senator Graham’s bill would codify the cruel instincts of a president intent on scapegoating and vilifying refugees,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill would make it that much harder to undo the great damage this administration has already done to Central American child refugees and their families.”

The Graham bill would establish “refugee application and processing centers” in Mexico and three locations in Central America. Any national or resident of a Central American country that has such a center or who lives in an adjacent country would be ineligible for asylum in the United States. As a result, no one from Central America who could have applied for refugee admission in those countries would be allowed to seek asylum on arrival in the United States.

Through the first three-quarters of this fiscal year, which ends September 30, the United States has chosen to admit only 306 Central American refugees. The Trump administration has already cut global refugee admissions by 65 percent, from a ceiling of 85,000 in the last year of the Obama presidency to 30,000 this year. Some officials in the administration have reportedly proposed cutting the refugee admissions ceiling to zero in the coming year.

“Senator Graham’s bill pushes Central Americans toward what is already an increasingly inaccessible overseas resettlement program, overriding the right, including for children, to seek asylum at the border,” Frelick said. “Overseas refugee admissions are only a supplement to the right to seek asylum, not a substitute.”

The Secure and Protect Act contains many other rights-undermining provisions, Human Rights Watch said. These include:

  • Eliminating the requirement for a formal agreement with a so-called “safe third country” before sending an asylum seeker there, allowing the US to unilaterally return asylum seekers to countries without guarantees that these countries are willing or able to examine their claims
  • Weakening standards that set limits on detention of asylum-seeking children mandated by the Flores Settlement Agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), paving the way to hold families in detention longer
  • Making asylum seekers show, in initial asylum screening interviews, that it is “more likely than not” they will be persecuted if returned to their countries rather than the “significant possibility” required under current law, increasing the likelihood they will be sent back without a chance to present their case to a judge
  • Barring asylum to people who cross the US border at places other than official ports of entry, even though US border authorities are currently restricting entry of asylum seekers at these ports

“Real solutions that are sustainable and humane would need to involve addressing the root causes of conflict and abuse that displace people and developing safe and orderly pathways to seek protection, including upholding the right to seek asylum,” Frelick said. “The Secure and Protect Act does none of these things, and the full US Senate should reject it.”