Immigration Reform

06.14.13

How the U.S. Asylum Deadline Hurts Women

Immigrants fleeing gender-based violence are disproportionately affected by the one-year cutoff for applying for asylum.

A few years ago a teenage girl was kidnapped from her home in the Balkans, then battered and raped. Her assailants intended to traffic her into prostitution, but she managed to escape. She fled to the United States, where, 13 months later, she applied for asylum. In support of her application, she submitted a psychological evaluation diagnosing her with Post Traumatic-Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. To explain her delay in seeking asylum, a psychologist testified about the difficulties that inhibited her from talking about her abuse.

But the immigration judge denied her asylum because she’d missed the one-year-filing deadline. By one month.

The immigration reform bill working its way through Congress is still under construction. Many Americans are familiar with its pillars: enforcement, a pathway to legalization, and improvements to the legal immigration system. But there are other planks with serious—sometimes life-or-death—consequences.

The Senate bill would, for example, eliminate the arbitrary one-year filing deadline for refugees seeking asylum that has prevented thousands of persecuted people from receiving the protection they need—and that most Americans would want them to receive. And statistics show that the deadline disproportionately hurts women.

Survivors of genocide. Victims of torture. Women fleeing the threat of genital mutilation and honor killings. Former political prisoners. Minorities targeted because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation. A core value of the United States is that we welcome these vulnerable people, not turn them away as if their trauma had expired.

Enacted in 1996, proponents of the deadline argued that it would prevent fraud by forcing people to declare themselves upon arrival. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, it has hurt the most vulnerable and traumatized of refugees while doing nothing to weed out fraudulent claims. The government has a range of tools that directly target fraud, including the adjudication process, which assesses the validity of claims of persecution.

Victims of gender-based violence face an additional hurdle: shame.

It’s reasonable to ask why some people in need of asylum don’t apply for it immediately. But when you think about the experience of persecuted refugees, the answer is clear. Many are traumatized and isolated. Most speak little or no English. Some don’t even know they’re supposed to, or able to, seek asylum. Victims of gender-based violence face an additional hurdle: shame. The asylum process requires them to talk to a stranger about the abuse they’ve suffered—a forbidding task for most, especially for women from cultures where they would be scorned and perhaps ostracized if the nature of their mistreatment became known.

It’s no wonder, then, that, according to the findings of researchers at the Georgetown University Law Center and Temple University School of Law, women who seek asylum are 50 percent more likely to apply three and four or more years after entry. The deadline is not just anti-refugee; it’s anti-women.

It’s also expensive. Because of the deadline, many cases that could be resolved in the Department of Homeland Security are transferred into overburdened immigration courts, where judges—trained to adjudicate asylum claims—try to determine whether a refugee has missed the deadline and whether an exception might apply. At a time of widespread concern about budgets deficits, politicians should welcome a change that would reduce waste and improve efficiency.

Even though the deadline is hard both on American taxpayers and persecuted refugees—especially women—some in Congress are resistant to doing away with it. There’s talk of merely extending the deadline by a few years, but tinkering with the deadline won't solve the problems it causes. Persecuted people would still be turned away in defiance of American ideals, and government resources would still be wasted.

You can’t put a deadline on trauma, and the United States can’t be the country it’s supposed to be unless it provides protection to people who desperately need it. Congress should eliminate the deadline.

Elisa Massimino is President and CEO of Human Rights First.