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Groups Rebuking Feds’ Move On Asylum

In a rare, unified rebuke of the Bush administration, 15 prominent Jewish organizations have come together to decry what they say is the unlawful prosecution of legitimate asylum seekers.

The groups are objecting to the federal government’s growing practice of prosecuting asylum seekers for using false documents to enter the United States. They voiced their opposition in a recent, sharply worded letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, claiming U.S. attorneys in Miami, Washington and “possibly other areas” were taking it upon themselves to prosecute asylum seekers.

Signed by leading Jewish civil rights organizations, the two largest synagogue movements and organizations representing Jewish communities across North America, the letter flies in the face of reports that Jewish groups are increasingly hesitant to confront the administration. It also suggests that, despite the attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent criticisms from a few well-placed skeptics, the Jewish community is maintaining its historic support for liberal immigration rules and concern for asylum seekers of all backgrounds.

In their August 13 letter, the Jewish groups argued that U.S. attorneys are violating federal law and the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was adopted by the United States to protect refugees from being penalized for the manner in which they enter the country. The groups also argued that the new policy “fails to take into account the essential reality of the refugee experience in which victims of religious persecution, torture, rape and other violent oppression are often not able to acquire proper papers from the government that is responsible for their persecution.”

Organized by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the letter recalled the use of forged documents to help Jews flee Nazi Europe and calls on administration officials to ensure that asylum seekers with false apers are not prosecuted “prior to the conclusion of their asylum proceedings.” It echoes a similar statement signed by 58 human rights organizations and sent to Ridge and Ashcroft in July.

The letter sent by Jewish groups was panned as “overbroad and oversweeping” by Stephen Steinlight, an advocate of stricter immigration regulations who has sought to win over Jewish groups. “There’s a false innocence and purity about their position,” said Steinlight, who serves on a congressional taskforce on immigration reform and is a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. Also a former senior official with the American Jewish Committee, Steinlight argued that “terrorists have entered the country repeatedly with false papers.”

The security argument was rejected by Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Congress, which signed onto the letter. “This has nothing to do with terrorism,” Stern said. “The government has plenty of weapons to incarcerate terrorists.”

Stern warned that if immigrants hear “they will be put in jail, they will be discouraged from coming here.”

Critics also warned that a push to convict refugees with document fraud will undermine legitimate asylum claims, land asylum seekers in maximum-security prisons and hinder the efforts of those who are granted asylum to be classified as permanent residents.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, defended the U.S. attorneys in question, arguing that they were simply upholding federal laws against falsifying passports. He said although it is rare to bring such charges, local U.S. attorneys have the discretion to incarcerate those accused of fraud while their asylum requests are being considered — thereby adhering to all federal statutes.

“We are a signatory on [international] laws that govern refugees, but at the same time we have U.S. laws we do follow here,” Strassberger said. “The prosecution is taking place separate from the asylum claim.”

Strassberger acknowledged, however, that an asylum seeker could be sent back home as a result of a fraud conviction.

A spokesman for the Justice Department, Jorge Martinez, said the department would review the letter sent by Jewish groups. He declined to comment on whether the practice indicates a shift in federal policy. Martinez did say: “U.S. attorneys use federal laws in the books to conduct these activities. If they are prosecuting anyone, it’s because they have violated a federal law.”

HIAS estimates that the current number of asylum seekers facing prosecution for document fraud is between 100 and 200, many of them from Haiti, Colombia and Liberia.

In seeking to make their case, the Jewish groups invoked the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II by providing them fake Swedish passports in Nazi-controlled Hungary. “These false papers,” the letter stated, “were essential in helping thousands of Jews to escape and, indeed meant the difference between life and death.”

In addition to the AJCongress and HIAS, the letter was signed by the AJCommittee; Anti-Defamation League; B’nai B’rith International; Jewish Labor Committee; National Council of Jewish Women; UJA-Federation of New York; Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring; the congregational arms of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements; United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local Jewish charitable federations, and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, an umbrella group consisting of 13 national Jewish organizations and more than 100 local Jewish communities across North America. The Orthodox Union, which did not sign on to the letter, said it did not have a chance to discuss the issue because its members were on vacation during the summer.

Officials with Jewish organizations pointed to the case of Olga Quintero, 38, as an example of why they are strenuously objecting to the new policy. A Columbian native, Quintero arrived at Miami International Airport last year seeking asylum based on the claim that guerilla groups back home had threatened her life.

A U.S. asylum officer ruled that Quintero had good reason to seek safe heaven, according to her lawyer, Jack Wallace. But on Quintero’s way to an asylum hearing in Florida, she was arrested, indicted, convicted and made to serve four months in the maximum-security Turner Guilford Knight Correction Center. Her crime: She used a false passport in order to escape her country and enter the United States.

Quintero, who is now a convicted felon, was paroled from prison August 18. During her stay at the maximum-security jail, she was subjected to frequent lockdowns, hourly countdowns during the night and strip searches, Wallace said. A final decision regarding her asylum, he added, will be resolved in another year and a half.

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