Asylum Seekers Often Mistreated, Study Funds
By Darryl Fears, Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2005.
People seeking asylum in the United States are held in detention centers where they are frequently handcuffed and restrained with belly chains, put in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons, and forced to share quarters with more dangerous inmates facing criminal prosecution, according to a study released yesterday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The study by the bipartisan commission, created by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom in other countries, concluded that the Department of Homeland Security's system for processing asylum seekers is often harsh, long and arbitrary.
The study concluded that asylum is granted or denied "depending on where the alien arrived, and which immigration judges or inspectors addressed the alien's claim." Refugees who landed in New York were much less likely to be granted asylum than those who landed in Miami, where the population of those with asylum is largely Cuban. Refugees who retain attorneys are about 11 times as likely to be granted asylum as those with no legal representation.
The report was released just days before the Senate is set to review legislation proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that would make it more difficult to gain asylum.
Mark Hetfield, director of the study and immigration counsel for the commission, said the conditions at detention centers "were totally inappropriate."
"They were exactly like jails," he said. "These are people who are fleeing persecution, many from unjust imprisonment in their own countries, and we are treating them like common criminals."
Applicants for asylum are seeking refuge in the United States after expressing fears of persecution or worse if they are returned to their home countries. Many are supposed to be held for short periods of time while authorities check whether they have legitimate claims, a process designed to prevent terrorists and others from using the immigration system to enter the country. Some are held much longer.
In fiscal 2003, the government granted asylum in 11,434 cases, according to its statistics.
As refugees wait in jails and jaillike facilities nationwide, they sometimes have been strip-searched, shackled, handcuffed in their cells or placed in isolation as part of an ordeal so harsh that some give up and return home.
For those who stay, the psychological damage from confinement can be lasting, wrote Craig Haney, a psychologist who co-wrote the section of the study on detention. "Most people experience incarceration as painful and even traumatic," he said. "It is certainly not the case that everyone who is incarcerated is disabled or psychologically harmed by it. . . . But few people end the experience unchanged by it."
Homeland Security maintains 19 facilities, including six county jails, in 12 states, to house about three-quarters of the foreign nationals who say they have fled persecution. The cost of detaining refugees varied from $30 to $200 per day, averaging $83. Only one of the facilities, in Broward County near Miami, trained its staff "with respect to what asylum seekers might have gone through," the study said.
All but two facilities allowed detainees to work. "In most of the detention facilities where work was allowed, detainees were paid," according to the report. "However, in each case . . . pay for their labor was very minimal -- $1 per day."
In each institution, detainees had little contact with the outside world. In most cases, they were allowed only one or two visits per week, lasting about an hour. "The majority of detention facilities prohibited any kind of contact . . . with family members, which meant that visits often occurred behind plexi-glass windows."
Detainees were allowed to make calls but not receive them. Incoming letters were opened in every facility, and half the institutions placed limits on the number of letters a detainee could send out.
The report's authors recommended that the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises the asylum system, create an office headed by a high-level official to address issues related to asylum. It proposed that asylum officers be allowed to grant asylum to those seeking it during their interview, easing the burden on detention centers.
The panel also called for the establishment of standards and conditions appropriate for detained non-criminal asylum seekers and said that the Homeland Security Department should consider a method of parole for detainees who show that they are not likely to flee or present a security risk.