Now that Washington has achieved a temporary respite from financial disaster, attention has returned to the controversial issue of immigration reform. One group of immigrants, however, rarely makes the headlines: refugees and political asylum-seekers who request entry to the United States to escape war or persecution.
They are people like Rediet, who advocated for democracy in Ethiopia and was twice imprisoned for her troubles. Or Fahran, who was a translator for the US Army in Afghanistan and was subsequently targeted by Afghan adversaries of the US. Or Adama, a refugee from the war in Mali that has been fueled by Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. In 2012 the US granted asylum to nearly 29,500 such applicants, as international obligations require when US officials find the asylum-seekers have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned to their home country.
More and more, such asylum-seekers are finding their way to the US border. They generally present themselves quite openly to customs officials and formally request protection. Many of them, like Rediet, have been champions of American values and are eager to enter the land of freedom; others, like Fahran, have served the US well and simply expect protection; still others, like Adama, have had little choice but to flee for their lives to a place they assume will offer safe haven.
But far too often what do they find? Shackles, numbing cold, confusion, and indefinite detention. In a recent report authored by the Center for the Victims of Torture, Adama describes how, upon presenting himself to a customs agent in Texas, he was immediately handcuffed and leg-cuffed for six hours and then transferred to a holding cell. “The room was very, very cold. I asked for a blanket – but they refused....[T]hey kept me there for two days.”
It is, of course, the job of the US Department of Homeland Security to prevent those who present a threat to this country from entering. The Citizenship and Immigration Services Asylum Office strives to complete “well-founded fear” interviews within two weeks of someone claiming asylum. If the individual establishes a credible fear of persecution if returned, that person is referred for a full hearing on the asylum claim before an immigration judge.
But the conditions under which asylum-seekers are held – in detention centers and county jails, often in restraints or isolation, deprived of information, and in 60 percent of cases lacking access to immigration counsel – belies the values for which this country stands. And even when asylum-seekers’ fears are judged credible, they can still be held in detention – some as long as two years – as their claims are adjudicated. That long stay is often because alternatives to detention programs, through which asylum-seekers are released from detention centers under supervision, are underfunded.
Such a Kafkaesque world would be hard enough for anyone to navigate, but, on top of their other travails, up to a third of all asylum seekers have been subjected to torture in their home countries. The conditions they encounter when they enter the US immigration system sometimes remind them of the bureaucracy and dislocation they encountered in their unhappy pasts. The result can be re-traumatization.
The truth is that it doesn’t need to be this way. The Department of Homeland Security has already made many improvements, but it needs to do more. Asylum-seekers should be shackled only if they present a clear danger to themselves or others. The department needs to make its processes more transparent, it needs to provide greater access to mental health services, and most of all, it needs to explore alternatives to detention that include case management, and referrals to community support services combined with appropriate monitoring and shelter options, if necessary.
Asylum-seekers, after all, are not criminals. They are people unfortunate enough to have encountered war and oppression but idealistic enough to have believed Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” reads the last line of Lazarus’s poem. Humane treatment of refugees requires that the path to the door be well lit and that those who pass through do it with their dignity preserved.
William F. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.