The Persecuted, in Chains

The New York Times editorial, September 25, 2004

In jails and prisons across the United States, thousands of people are detained who have never been accused of crimes. The guards treat them like criminals, and the criminals they bunk with often abuse them. They are held for months, sometimes even years, but unlike the criminals, they do not know when their sentences will end. They receive this treatment because they are foreigners who arrived in the United States saying that they were fleeing persecution at home.

The United States did not always lock up the huddled masses. Until 1997, when security concerns began to rise, asylum seekers could live like normal people while awaiting their hearings. Today, thousands wait in detention. Some go to immigration centers that greatly resemble prisons, but more than half are sent to actual jails and prisons.

The Homeland Security Department, which took over immigration matters from the Immigration and Naturalization Service 18 months ago, says it detains only those who pose a security threat or who intend to disappear. But there are countless cases of asylum seekers who are detained even when they clearly pose no risk, have friends or relatives in America who will post bond, and are unlikely to skip out on their asylum hearings. They include Tibetan nuns, religious minorities from Africa, an Afghan (picture courtesy Translation: I am a Tamil of Eelam.  Genocide of Tamils by the Sinhala government is occuring.  I have taken political refuge.   I believe I can obtain my civil rights here. )

woman persecuted by the Taliban for running a girls' school, Ukrainian grass-roots activists and others. These people are often the most noble in their society. They come here chasing America's promised liberty, and they end up in chains.

The rules have become harsher since Sept. 11. An asylum seeker landing at an American border post or airport speaks to an asylum officer, who determines whether the person poses a security risk or has ties to the community. Those who fail those tests are deported, and those who pass are detained. A majority of the detainees are then paroled to await their hearings. But the decisions of Homeland Security vary hugely by region. The regions based in Miami, Texas and San Diego release 81 percent of their detainees; New York releases 8 percent, and New Jersey only 4 percent.

In addition, the United States seems to be using harsh detention to discourage people from fleeing to America. In the case of Haitians, this is an explicit policy. Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that all people arriving by boat - a vast majority of them Haitians - should be detained because freeing them would encourage others to come. An exception is made for the Cubans who arrive by boat. They get parole and a green card, by law.

Decisions on how to handle each immigrant should be based on individual circumstances, according to clear rules that apply to all regions equally. The United States must obviously be careful with people who come here and say they are seeking asylum. But locking up thousands of people who pose no risk and are accused of no crimes is expensive, unnecessary and a betrayal of America's commitment to the persecuted.


Posted September 29, 2004