There has been no significant legislation related to the asylum process enacted in Congress in nearly a decade. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) became law, rolling back protections for asylum seekers by including a one-year deadline for filing asylum applications, subjecting asylum seekers to “expedited removal” procedures, and expanding the detention of asylum seekers. In 2005, Congress enacted the REAL ID Act, which created additional legal barriers to asylum, including new requirements for proving an asylum claim.
During the past several sessions of Congress, bills have been introduced that would make significant changes to the country’s asylum laws and refugee admissions program. This paper provides an overview of the pending legislation and the changes proposed. This overview is instructive in understanding (1) which members of Congress have demonstrated interest and leadership in refugee and asylum issues; (2) which refugee and asylum reform issues have been of most interest to members of Congress in recent years; (3) the different approaches to refugee and asylum issues by members of Congress who have shown leadership on these issues; and (4) which provisions have been enacted, which have gained traction, and which remain pending without significant movement through the legislative process.
While it is difficult to imagine in the current partisan climate how any asylum or refugee legislation could be enacted into law, some legislative provisions have been reintroduced over a number of sessions of Congress and some have a history of bipartisan support. Legislation focused on a group of particular interest or concern to members of Congress could gain traction. A more comprehensive legislative approach framed by the need generally to improve the system could be less effective, particularly in the context of the years-long stalemate on comprehensive immigration reform.
While legislation is unlikely to pass in the near future, it remains important for members of Congress who believe in the importance a fair, effective, and humane asylum system and refugee resettlement program, to introduce and build support for asylum and refugee legislation. Provisions in bills that have already been introduced, like those in S. 744, are more likely to be included in legislation that is moving through Congress. In addition, these bills demonstrate the continued interest of members of Congress in asylum and refugee issues and the need for reform. They also provide an important tool for advocates for education and outreach to Congress and the public.