Appendix F: Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act
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I. Training of Asylum Officers and Refugee Adjudicators
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a DHS component, 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 six 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 this course and in local asylum office training, USCIS provides Asylum Officers with specialized training on religious persecution issues. With the passage of the IRFA in 1998, the six-week training program expanded to incorporate information about IRFA as a part of the regular curriculum. In FY2009, staff members from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the U.S. Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom, and a nongovernmental organization (NGO) participated in the IRFA training during the two six-week courses that were conducted. In addition, a continual effort is made to include further discussion of religious persecution whenever possible in both the six-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 the IRFA, USCIS provides specialized training to Refugee Officers. The Refugee Officer Training Course (ROTC) consists of in-depth training on the international framework and principles of refugee protection, refugee law, laws governing admissibility to the United States, nonadversarial interviewing techniques, assessing credibility, country conditions research, and other critical topics. This five-week training course covers all grounds, including religion, on which a claim for refugee status may be based. During the training, students receive specialized instruction on religious persecution issues, including presentations by USCIRF representatives on the IRFA. 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. Approximately 100 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 2009, 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 predeparture training, which focuses specifically on the issues related to the region where they will travel. This training may include any particular concerns regarding religious persecution in the region.
The Country of Origin Information Research Section (COIRS) 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 COIRS has published an on-line guide to Internet research that is available to asylum officers and refugee officers through the Asylum Virtual Library. The guide includes links to government and nongovernmental websites that contain information on religious persecution, as well as other issues relevant to asylum adjudications. The COIRS 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 interpret 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. Interpreters receive training on confidentiality and antibias and are instructed to recuse themselves if unable to uphold these standards. Asylum Officers report to the Asylum Division any concerns about the accuracy or neutrality of the interpretation, which in turn are raised to the contracting officer of the interpreter services company.
For refugee interviews, interpreters are arranged at circuit ride locations by the Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) under contract to the Department of State. Prior to the refugee interview, interpreters are placed under oath by USCIS officers and swear or affirm that interpretation will be complete and accurate. If there are indications that the interpreter and applicant do not understand each other, or that the interpreter is not properly fulfilling obligations of the interpreter role, the Refugee Officer will advise the Team Leader and may request a different interpreter for the interview. In the event an interpreter is found to be incompetent, the Refugee Officer would raise the issue through the Team Leader to the OPE, which would then engage another interpreter.
1 Asylum Officers are required to complete two six-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, and effective legal and country conditions research skills. In addition compulsory in-service training for all asylum officers is held weekly.