Obama: The U.S. Will Be A Home To Refugees Fearing Persecution

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The Obama administration announced Wednesday that refugees seeking political asylum with a credible fear of persecution will be released into the U.S. In prior years, as many as 95 percent of those who applied for asylum were held in detention centers while there cases were heard. Host Michel Martin speaks with Doris Meissner, Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former Commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), for more on the change in political asylum policy.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up some people think juvenile justice reformer Vinny Schiraldi is one of those ivory tower intellectuals who doesn't know anything about the real world - think again.

Mr. VINCENT SCHIRALDI (Juvenile Justice Reformer): I got beat up. I was sexually molested as a kid. I was, you know, mugged in Central Park. My car has been stolen four different times. My house has been broken into. I'm not a big fan of crime.

MARTIN: Schiraldi currently oversees the DC Juvenile Justice system, and he's about to take a new post in New York. We'll hear more about his provocative ideas about what really works in a few minutes.

But first, new rules for those seeking political asylum in the U.S. Yesterday, the Obama administration announced that those who apply for political asylum with a credible fear of persecution will be released into the U.S. The new policy takes effect next month. The loosening of restrictions comes at the same week that Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced legislation to overhaul the current immigration system. And it follows a dramatic change in policy on workplace immigration raids.

We wanted to make sense of all these changes. So we've called on Doris Meissner. She served as Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for the entirety of the Clinton administration. She's now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and she joins us now in our Washington D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute): Thank you.

MARTIN: During the last years of the Bush administration - now these figures come from a group called Human Rights First. They report that within 95 percent of those who apply for asylum were held in detention centers while their cases were heard. So yesterday's announcement sounds like a pretty dramatic departure from previous policy. But I wanted to ask is this a return to a policy that was in place before that?

Ms. MEISSNER: Yes, it is actually. This is a significant shift in policy but it goes back to practices that were in place in the 1990s.

MARTIN: Well, what's the logic? I mean there are some people who would argue that the national security concerns of the country have to come first. Just because someone's made a claim of asylum doesn't mean that he or she is really facing persecution. So it does make sense to hold people until you can actually evaluate the credibility of their claims. What's the logic behind this change?

Ms. MEISSNER: Well, the logic here of course is that these are people who are coming to the United States, who are being interviewed by an asylum officer to determine, at a threshold level, whether their claim seems to be credible. And they are also people who have to show to the asylum officer that they are who they say they are, that they are not going to be a danger to the community. So the policy change is not saying everybody is going to be released. The policy change is saying that those people who seem likely to be successful in their claim of asylum should be - should not be held in detention.

I think that that's a very carefully thought through and limited change. We have an asylum system now which decides claims very quickly, within six months, basically. These people get no particular benefit other than to not be in detention. And the policy, as it had existed by putting everybody in detention, really was excessively harsh.

You were putting people who were coming here and not in large numbers but from very difficult circumstances - people who had been tortured, people who were traumatized, into detention centers, many of which are holding criminals. And those populations were often commingled. So it was an overreaction to the issue of asylum seekers.

MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit, if we can, from policy to politics. As I mentioned, new immigration legislation was introduced in the House. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been promising that immigration reform is very much on the agenda for 2010. But how realistic is that? As a person who worked in this area for many, many years and still does, is it really realistic to say that immigration reform can be a front-burner issue the closer that lawmakers get to elections in 2010? As everyone knows, every member of the House is up for election in 2010 and about a third of the Senate.

Ms. MEISSNER: It will be a difficult issue in an election year. It's a difficult issue at any time. But the closer that you get to elections the tougher it is for members to take tough votes. That said, the immigration system desperately needs reform. We really need to address all kinds of problems that exist at the present time. The administration has made a strong commitment to pressing for immigration reform. There is real leadership in the Senate and in the House to do it. So I think they'll start a debate. Whether they pass a bill I think that's a very open question.

MARTIN: We have about a minute left - what would be your top priority if you were advancing this issue now?

Ms. MEISSNER: Top priority in terms of legislation?


Ms. MEISSNER: Well, I think legislation does have to be comprehensive. This is - these problems are not going to be solved by piecemeal steps.

MARTIN: And do you think that they - well, I guess what you're saying is there is no one issue that you can pick out. You either have to solve the whole problem or leave it alone.

Ms. MEISSNER: Well, ideally you try to solve the whole problem. You try to deal with the issue of better controls on employers so that there is less likelihood of getting jobs in the country if you're here illegally. You also have to deal with the fact that we have a very large population of people who are here illegally, who are contributing, and as a practical matter, they need to have legal status. But that has to be combined with enforcement and it also has to look ahead to what our needs for immigration might be in the future once we come out of this economic downspin that we're in.

MARTIN: Well, as this issue moves forward, I hope we speak again.

Ms. MEISSNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Doris Meissner was former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. She's now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and she was here with me in our Washington D.C. studio. Thank you again.

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