[Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program. See part one of his post here.]
Since Sale v. Haitian Centers Council judgment in 1993 settled the issue of extraterritorial application of the principle of nonrefoulement in US domestic law, US-based refugee rights advocates after 1993 were left without recourse to US courts. But, writing for the Sale majority, Justice Stevens had said, “The wisdom of the policy choices by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton is not a matter for our consideration.”
Accordingly, US advocates turned their attention to the policy choices of the executive branch and tried to push the US president to limit US actions, even if he was not required to do so under US law. Secondarily, they targeted the legislative branch, although the US Congress in the mid-90s had taken a restrictionist turn with respect to asylum and immigration. The stark political reality was that there was no prospect of reversing Sale through legislation. Finally, as discussed in a companion essay, US-based advocates worked with UNHCR and international NGO partners to isolate the US interpretation of the nonrefoulement principle in international fora and to limit the damage of the US precedent in other jurisdictions.
This essay will discuss the first two of these three avenues of post-Sale advocacy in which NGOs tried: (1) to convince the Clinton Administration (and later administrations) as a matter of policy, if not of law, to adhere to international refugee protection principles, and (2) to prevent Congress from taking even more regressive steps and, if possible, to introduce language into legislation that would ameliorate the worst elements of Sale.
Advocacy with the US Executive
First, refugee advocates engaged with the Clinton Administration to convince the president to refrain, as a matter of policy, from availing himself of the Supreme Court’s free pass to refoule maritime asylum seekers. This effort involved direct meetings with Clinton Administration officials, media outreach, and enlisting the support of influential voices. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch/Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, Caribbean Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Physicians for Human Rights, worked to document human rights abuses of Haitians who had been returned by the United States. Advocates also argued with Clinton Administration figures that the US interdiction practice was likely to be very damaging to refugee rights if widely adopted by other states.
To some extent this advocacy succeeded. The Clinton Administration tested a number of alternatives to direct, summary repatriation of Haitians—short of admitting interdicted Haitians to the United States to pursue asylum claims on US soil. Among these was an in-country refugee processing procedure, modeled to some degree on the Orderly Departure Program that was being used at the same time to bring Vietnamese boat departures to an end. Although NGOs were divided on in-country processing from Haiti, and some were involved in the processing, other advocates, this writer included, sharply criticized in-country processing as deeply flawed based, in part, on rights violations Haitians experienced while waiting in the queue, and rejected it as a rationalization for summary returns (see here).
About a year after Sale, on May 8, 1994, President Clinton announced that his administration would not directly repatriate interdicted Haitians without giving them an opportunity to present refugee claims. In July 1994, the Clinton Administration announced that the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) would be used as a safe haven for Haitians, the same day that the UN Security Council agreed to a resolution calling for all necessary measures to restore democracy to Haiti. Within six months, President Bertrand Aristide had been restored to power and most of the Haitians at GTMO returned voluntarily. Refugee rights advocates, this writer included, were highly critical of the treatment of Haitians (and Cubans) at GTMO, but for all its faults it was a vast improvement over having US Coast Guard cutters taking interdicted Haitians directly back to Port-au-Prince.
Policies not grounded in law are subject to change according to political circumstance, however. When Aristide was deposed a second time, in February 2004, the new US president, George W. Bush, announced, “I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore,” and US policy had swung back to that of the GHW Bush years, and post-Sale his actions were not amenable to legal challenge.
Advocacy with the US Congress
On the second front, with the US Congress in the mid-1990s, there was considerably less sympathy for Haitian refugees than in the White House. The Congress was in the process of enacting the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), legislation that introduced a host of draconian restrictions on the ability of asylum seekers to lodge claims in the United States. This left US advocates to pursue rearguard actions on the margins of IIRAIRA that might provide some relief to asylum seekers interdicted on the high seas. Refugee rights advocates could not stop Congress from introducing expedited removal as part of IIRAIRA, but were able to convince legislators to include in the category of aliens who were to be treated as applicants for admission in INA §235, the new statutory provision for expedited removal, people who had been “brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters.”
Refugee advocates reasoned that although expedited removal was a step backward in procedural protections for arriving aliens, it at least would provide some procedure, however truncated and accelerated, that would provide a higher measure of protection than was being provided to asylum seekers interdicted at sea and summarily returned to Haiti.
There have been more ambitious legislative initiatives in the 20 years since Sale to try to counter the damage, but none has been enacted into law. The most comprehensive, the Refugee Protection Act (RPA), championed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), would amend INA §241(b)(3) by including language that specifically addresses protection for aliens interdicted at sea. The RPA would add reference not only to the principle of nonrefoulement in refugee law, but in human rights law as well and would prohibit the return of people interdicted in international or US waters who express a fear of return until they have had the opportunity to be interviewed by an asylum officer to determine whether they have a well-founded fear of persecution or would be subjected to torture. The RPA also outlines procedures applicable for interdicted asylum seekers and indicates how the US should treat those found to be in need of international protection, saying such people should be given the opportunity to seek protection in another country, which could include the United States.
The earliest iteration of the RPA was introduced in the 106th Congress in 1999-2001 at the end of the Clinton administration. Over the years, the RPA has gained widespread NGO support, including from leading refugee and human rights organizations including Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the ABA, and many faith-based and secular refugee service and advocacy organizations. Introduced again in the 113th Congress, it is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Refugee rights advocates in the United States had some success in convincing the Clinton Administration not to refrain from interdicting Haitians on the high seas and summarily repatriating them as a matter of policy, even though the Sale decision authorized it to do so. However, advocates failed to convince the US Congress to change the law to require the executive branch to honor the principle of nonrefoulement where it exercises jurisdiction or control outside US territory. Therefore, the George W. Bush Administration was able to revert to the practice of high seas interdiction and summary return of Haitians to a place where they were likely to face threats to their lives and freedom.