No refuge

By Michelle Chen Mar 28, 2009

Thousands flock to America’s doorstep each year to flee torture, political persecution and other abuses. But many of the world’s huddled masses don’t get to breathe free after they land within U.S. borders. Thanks to draconian immigration laws, more asylum seekers are landing in a byzantine detention system that warehouses them indefinitely. Amnesty International USA documents in a new report that the path to asylum may drag on for years:

While ICE reported an average detention stay of 37 days in 2007, immigrants and asylum seekers may be detained for months or even years as they go through deportation procedures that will determine whether or not they are eligible to remain in the United States. According to a 2003 study, individuals who were eventually granted asylum spent an average of 10 months in detention with the longest reported period being 3.5 years. … In some cases, the continued detention of individuals may amount to arbitrary detention in contravention of international law.

Deprived of adequate legal counsel, an untold number of asylum seekers are other detainees are caught in a legal labyrinth, frequently isolated from their communities under inhumane conditions. In one case documented by Amnesty, a 26 year-old Chinese woman came to the United States in 2008 to escape religious persecution, was swept up into ICE custody, and languished in detention for about a year because her family could not pay the $50,000 bond imposed by the government. In a separate briefing, Amnesty explains that the Bush administration heightened barriers to asylum relief by restructuring the immigration bureaucracy and court system as well as expanding mandatory detention policies for asylum seekers. Despite these roadblocks, more people seek asylum in the United States than in any other industrialized country. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that in 2008, the United States fielded about 13 percent of the world’s asylum claims to industrialized nations, about 49,000. The sad irony is that the conflicts Washington fuels abroad are in turn driving the crises that push people to flee their countries. Asylum claims from Iraq and Afghanistan have surged. And federal authorities report a rise in claims from the new ground zero in the war on drugs, Mexico. The immigrant detention system reflects a cruel circularity in the catastrophes encircling the globe, which in many instances can be traced back to U.S. policies. If the Obama administration won’t be waging peace abroad any time soon, it can at least deal with the fallout that lands on U.S. shores by treating survivors with dignity. Image: Iraqi refugees (Amman Center for Human Rights Studies)