Appendix F - Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act

International Religious Freedom Report 2008

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)

The Department of Homeland Security has assumed responsibilities formerly charged to the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the IRFA. The DHS is committed to ensuring that all claims for refugee and asylum protection are treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, and that all mandates of IRFA for these programs are properly implemented. This appendix summarizes the Department's actions during the Fiscal Year 2008, as required under Section 102 (b)(1)(E) of IRFA.

I. Training of Asylum Officers and Refugee Adjudicators

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides extensive training to Asylum Officers to prepare them to perform their duties of adjudicating asylum claims. The training covers all grounds on which an asylum claim may be based, including religion. Asylum Officers receive approximately 5 weeks of specialized training related to international human rights law, nonadversarial interview techniques, and other relevant national and international refugee laws and principles.[1] During the 5-week course and in local asylum office training, USCIS provides Asylum Officers with specialized training on religious persecution issues. With the passage of IRFA in 1998, the 5-week training program expanded to incorporate information about IRFA as a part of the regular curriculum. A staff member from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) participated in each of the three training courses held in FY 2008. In addition, a continual effort is made to include further discussion of religious persecution whenever possible in both the 5-week course 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 papers on religious persecution from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, USCIRF, or other organizations, as well as any recent developments in case law or country conditions on this issue

As mandated by IRFA, USCIS provides specialized training to Refugee Officers. Much of the material for the Refugee Officer Training Course (ROTC) consists of in-depth training on refugee law, and much of the material was originally drawn from the Asylum Officer training materials. This 5-week training course covers all grounds, including religion, on which a claim for refugee status may be based. It also involves specialized training on international human rights law, nonadversarial interview techniques, and other relevant national and international refugee laws and principles. During the training, students receive specialized instruction on religious persecution issues. For example, as part of the last two sessions, USCIRF members conducted presentations on IRFA. In addition, the training encourages further discussion of religious persecution whenever possible. USCIS has updated the primary lesson plan to reflect recent guidelines issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on religious persecution claims, as well as recent developments in refugee law. More than 45 officers have completed the training to date.[2]

In addition to the ROTC, USCIS also provides preparatory training to officers who are embarking on short-term, overseas refugee-related assignments. This training includes detailed information on religious issues that will be encountered on the overseas assignment, as well as on specific issues related to refugee adjudications.

In FY 2008, the Refugee Affairs Division presented two separate two-week trainings, one to overseas Immigration Officers and one to domestically-based USCIS staff. These also provided substantive and intensive training on refugee law and procedure, including religion as one of the grounds for determining eligibility for refugee status.

Prior to each overseas detail, Refugee Officers and detailees receive a pre-departure training, which focuses specifically on the issues related to the region where they will travel. This training may include any particular concerns regarding to religious persecution in the region.

The Country of Origin Information (COI) Research Section of the Asylum Division of the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate serves both asylum officers and refugee officers and maintains the Resource Information Center (RIC) – a hard copy and electronic collection of materials regarding human rights conditions around the world. The COI Research Section has published an online guide to web research that is available to asylum officers and refugee officers through the Asylum Virtual Library. This online internet guide includes links to government and nongovernmental websites that contain information on religious persecution, as well as other issues relevant to asylum adjudications. The COI Research Section separately catalogs RIC holdings regarding religious freedom and related issues.

II. Guidelines for Addressing Hostile Biases

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 translate fully and accurately the proceedings of the asylum interview. The asylum officer may terminate the interview to be rescheduled at a later date if the interpreter is found to be misrepresenting the applicant's testimony, is incompetent, or otherwise displays improper conduct.

USCIS includes specific antibias provisions in the interpreter services contract used by Asylum Officers in the Asylum Pre-Screening Program. The contract and interpreter oath also include special provisions that ensure the security and confidentiality of the credible fear process. Asylum Officers report to the Asylum Division any concerns about the accuracy or neutrality of the interpretation, which in turn are raised to the management of the interpreter services company.

[1] Asylum Officers are required to complete two 5-week training courses, "BASIC," and the Asylum Officer Basic Training Course (AOBTC). BASIC covers the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and basic immigration law. The AOBTC includes international human rights law, asylum and refugee law, interviewing techniques, decision-making and decision-writing skills, effective country conditions research skills, and computer skills. In addition compulsory in-service training for all asylum officers is held weekly.

[2] Like Asylum Officers, Refugee Officers are also required to participate in the 5-week BASIC training.