Asylum Seekers Spared the Worst of the Immigration Crisis?

By Michelle Chen Dec 18, 2009

The prospects for meaningful immigration reform look treacherously dim, but the White House did start dealing with one blight in the immigration system this week. Starting next year, in theory, people fleeing torture and persecution will be able to set foot on U.S. shores without landing behind bars. The Obama administration has announced that Homeland Security will no longer keep asylum seekers under strict mandatory detention upon entry into the country, so long as they can offer sufficient proof that they are under threat of persecution. Under the reformed process, asylum seekers will automatically be considered for parole instead of incarceration; before, the burden was on the asylum seeker to request relief in writing. And according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s factsheet:

[W]hile the prior policy allowed ICE officers to grant parole based on a determination of the public interest, it did not define this concept. By contrast, the new directive explains that the public interest is served by paroling arriving aliens found to have a credible fear who establish their identities, pose neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community, and for whom no additional factors weigh against their release.

It’s just a tweak for one of the harsher incarceration policies, but the move (which helps reverse a tightening of restrictions under Bush) is no doubt a response to numerous reports of asylum seekers languishing indefinitely or even dying in detention, deprived of medical, legal and social services. Allowing asylum seekers to live outside detention wouldn’t change much about the structure of immigrant detention, which has shunted thousands, many of them posing no actual risk to public safety, into a sprawling network of jails, private prisons, and other facilities that easily slip outside the purview of the law. For the detainees who can’t make an asylum claim, due process rights are routinely shredded. The ACLU has urged Homeland Security to fix its detainee transfer procedures so people in federal custody are not arbitrarily severed from their families, communities, and legal help. According to Amnesty International, "individuals are five times more likely to be granted asylum if they are represented." The group recently called on Obama and Congress to "pass legislation to ensure that all immigrants and asylum seekers have access to individualized hearings on the lawfulness, necessity, and appropriateness of detention." Meanwhile, the issue of comprehensive immigration reform remains radioactive. Though the Obama administration has voiced intent to move toward humane immigration enforcement policies, there are signs it is patently unenthusiastic about even mentioning the bill recently introduced by Rep. Gutierrez, which would, among other things, create a reasonable path to legalization for the undocumented and improve detention conditions. So the administration scores a few points for keeping people out of detention when they don’t belong there, and it makes sense to loosen the rules starting with one of the most vulnerable groups of immigrants. But allowing more asylum seekers to live in American communities doesn’t address the core problem–that they, and countless other immigrants, are floating in a extralegal morass. They may not have to be detained anymore, but they’re still trapped. Image: John Steven Fernandez via flickr