Appendix F: Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act
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When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, it assumed responsibilities formerly charged to the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). DHS is committed to ensuring all applicants for asylum and refugee status are treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, and that all mandates of the IRFA involving the asylum and refugee programs are properly implemented. This appendix summarizes the actions of DHS U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations (RAIO) Directorate during calendar year (CY) 2017 as required under Section 102(b)(1)(E) of the IRFA.
I. Training of Refugee Officers, Asylum Officers, and Other USCIS Staff Who Adjudicate Refugee and Asylum Claims
RAIO is responsible for the adjudication of asylum and refugee claims, both domestically and abroad. RAIO provides extensive training to refugee officers, asylum officers, and other adjudications officers within the RAIO Directorate to prepare them to interview asylum and refugee applicants and adjudicate their requests for protection.
RAIO Directorate Officer Training is composed of the RAIO Combined Training Program (RAIO CTP) and division-specific training that addresses adjudications and procedures specific to each division.
RAIO CTP includes instruction related to principles of international human rights law, U.S. law governing refugee and asylum adjudications, nonadversarial interviewing techniques, credibility assessments, national security issues, country-of-origin information and legal research, and other critical topics. During the course, students receive specialized instruction to ensure unbiased refugee and asylum adjudications, including instructions on issues of the nature of religious persecution abroad, religious freedom, and persecution on account of religion as one of the five grounds on which asylum and refugee status can be based. This includes material specifically on the IRFA and presentations on the IRFA by experts on religious persecution. The training materials are regularly updated to reflect any change in law, policy, and procedures, and incorporate relevant information on religious persecution from the Department of State, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and other sources. In CY 2017, RAIO trained 112 new refugee officers, 196 new asylum officers, and nine adjudications officers from the International Operations Division who frequently adjudicate refugee claims. RAIO also trained seven immigration officers from the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate who work in RAIO offices.
Staff members from other USCIS components also conduct refugee interviews while on temporary duty (TDY) to RAIO. To ensure these staff members receive specialized training compliant with the IRFA requirements, RAIO’s Refugee Affairs Division (RAD) conducts a two-week Refugee Processing Training Course designed to prepare USCIS adjudicators on TDY to adjudicate overseas refugee claims. The course covers all of the topics included in the RAIO CTP, including persecution on account of religion as a basis for claiming refugee status. This course was folded into the Refugee Division Officer Training Course (RDOTC) in FY 2017 due to resource constraints. RDOTC is six weeks and covers all topics necessary to fully adjudicate a refugee case – including content with specific emphasis on religious-based claims and claims with religious considerations, such as Lautenberg-Spector cases. RAD also holds Refugee Processing Overview (RPO) training for TDY supporting from the Asylum Division. This course focuses on processes and procedures, including any changes in policy regarding religious considerations in refugee case adjudications. Sixty-three TDY staff received either RDOTC or RPO training in 2017. In addition, further training is provided prior to deployment on overseas refugee processing trips. These eight-day trainings focus specifically on issues related to the region where staff will travel and the refugee populations they will encounter. These briefings include particular concerns regarding religious persecution in the region, as well as specific issues related to refugee adjudications in that area.
In the Asylum Division, a continual effort is made to include further discussion of religious persecution whenever possible in both basic and advanced courses, and in local asylum office training. The Asylum Division regularly updates its training materials and conducts training in local asylum offices to reflect any recently issued reports on religious persecution from the UNHCR and other organizations, as well as any recent developments in case law or country conditions on this issue.
The RAIO Research Unit serves all officers at RAIO and maintains a collection of materials regarding human rights conditions around the world. The Research Unit has published an online guide to internet research available to all USCIS staff. The guide includes links to governmental and nongovernmental web sites that contain information on religious persecution, as well as other issues relevant to asylum and refugee adjudications. The Research Unit separately catalogs its holdings regarding religious freedom and related issues. Periodically, the Research Unit invites guest speakers to USCIS to address important international events, such as emerging or ongoing civil wars and environmental disasters. When relevant, religious freedom issues are integrated into the discussion. The Research Unit produces a monthly news summary for officers throughout the agency on human rights abuses and sociopolitical developments around the world. The news summary frequently contains articles regarding religious intolerance and persecution.
II. Guidelines for Addressing Hostile Biases
For refugee interviews, the Resettlement Support Centers, managed by the Department of State, hire and manage interpreters at refugee processing locations. Prior to the refugee interview, interpreters are notified of their roles and responsibilities and are placed under oath by USCIS officers and swear or affirm that interpretation will be complete and accurate and that they understand the confidential nature of the refugee interview. If there are indications the interpreter and applicant do not understand each other, or the interpreter is not properly fulfilling the obligations of the interpreter role, the refugee officer may request a different interpreter for the interview. In the event an interpreter is found to be incompetent or displays improper conduct, the interpreter is replaced.
In the protection screening context (Safe Third Country screening, credible fear, and reasonable fear screening interviews), the Asylum Division provides interpreters for those who cannot proceed with an interview in English. Separate from protection screenings, USCIS asylum officers conduct asylum adjudications of individuals in the United States who affirmatively apply for asylum; immigration judges within the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review conduct asylum adjudications of individuals in the United States who are placed in removal proceedings.
In the affirmative asylum context, applicants for asylum who cannot proceed with the asylum interview in English must provide their own interpreter. Prior to conducting any interpretation for the interview, the interpreter must take an oath to interpret fully and accurately the proceedings of the asylum interview. In addition, for interviews requiring interpreters, professional interpreter monitors are contacted telephonically by asylum officers at the outset of the interview. The interpreter monitor, whose services are acquired on a contract basis, listens to the interpretation provided by the applicant’s interpreter and reports any mistranslations, bias, or other problems with the interpretation. The interpreter monitor must also take an oath to report to the asylum officer any mistranslation observed during the interview, to immediately notify the officer if the monitor is unable to monitor in a neutral and unbiased manner, and to maintain the confidentiality of the asylum interview. The asylum officer may terminate the interview and reschedule it to a later date if the interpreter is found to be misrepresenting the applicant’s testimony, is incompetent, or displays improper conduct.
USCIS includes specific confidentiality and antibias provisions in the interpreter services contract used by asylum offices both in the asylum prescreening program and in the affirmative asylum context. The contracts include special provisions that ensure the security and confidentiality of the credible fear process, including a requirement that all interpreters provide a signed and notarized Confidentiality and Neutrality Statement. Additionally, all interpreters working under the interpreter services contracts are required to undergo suitability determinations and background investigations conducted by the USCIS Office of Security and Integrity. Prior to performing work under the contract, interpreters receive training on confidentiality and cultural sensitivity/antibias concerns and are instructed to recuse themselves if unable to uphold these standards. At the beginning of each interview, interpreters are placed under oath to provide accurate and neutral interpretation during the interview. Asylum officers report to the Asylum Division any concerns about the accuracy or neutrality of the interpretation, which in turn are raised with the contracting officer of the interpreter services company. Under contract, the interpreter services company must, in consultation with the Asylum Division, take appropriate steps to address these complaints. Depending on the seriousness of the infraction and/or the interpreter’s prior history of performance, remedies may include retraining or removal from the contract. Ultimately, the Asylum Division has the authority to remove an interpreter from the contract.