A twisted sense of asylum

Floridians were outraged earlier this summer when Miami television showed live pictures of six Cubans being set upon by the US Coast Guard, which fired water cannons and pepper spray at them in their rickety boat.

The Cubans dived into the water. Their goal was to reach land, where they could request political asylum. In a Catch-22 of the law, if detained aboard their boat they would have been returned immediately to Cuba. Cubans, once routinely welcomed by the US because of its differences with Fidel Castro, now are turned back because of a policy change.

Spectators cheered as two Cubans, surrounded by Coast Guard boats, broke free and swam frantically toward land. When they reached the beach, one was roughly wrestled to the ground by waiting officers, and both were led away in handcuffs. The other four were plucked from the ocean to be returned to Cuba.

Public outrage and protests, fueled by the dramatic television coverage, forced the government to allow all six to remain and apply for political asylum.

But what happens to asylum seekers whose plight is not captured live on TV?

Every day, asylum seekers receive harsh treatment once in the US. Asylum seekers often are running to escape possible torture, death, or imprisonment because of political beliefs. The government's standard of handling these individuals is insidious.

They suffer extended periods of spirit-shattering detention - months or years spent behind bars like common criminals.

Such conduct violates treaties, common sense, and our own sense of who we are as Americans.

The United Nations Refugee Act and the Geneva Convention make it clear that asylum seekers are presumed to have suffered persecution or hardship in their country of origin and should be protected against any form of harsh treatment or imprisonment.

Rather than respecting these treaties and pursuing alternatives to detention, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) mandates that asylum seekers, even if they have established a credible fear of persecution, must be locked up while their administrative case is processed.

The INS could require them to report regularly to the agency while the case is being reviewed, or a US citizen or permanent resident could guarantee the immigrant's appearance at all future proceedings.

Instead, we lock them up, a punishment they may have fled in their native land.

We violate common sense when we expect someone from another country, grounded in another culture, speaking another language and locked behind bars, to cobble together evidence to make a legal argument to persuade an immigration judge that deportation should not be ordered.

We violate our own sense of what we are as a country when people seeking the promise of our freedom find themselves imprisoned.

Thousands of asylum seekers who have not captured newspaper headlines are sent to detention centers and local jails far from lawyers, family, and support networks. While detained, they routinely are transferred from one remote facility to another without notice to their lawyers, if they have been fortunate enough to find one.

Those unfortunate enough to be warehoused in local and county jails because of overcrowding are denied basic protections provided in INS detention centers.

Often these detainees do not have access to lawyers or telephones and are not given information about their legal rights.

The Clinton administration has said it intends to review the way that the six Cubans were treated in Florida, and that is commendable. It should also examine how the US treats all asylum seekers, even those whose suffering is not televised.

To do less means we are not the country we think we are, or that we should be.

*Philip S. Anderson is president of the American Bar Association.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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