Sunday, May 11, 2014

Seeking Asylum In America Is No Easy Matter

Human Detention

Detained In The U.S.Stauffer writes: “As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agreed to 'not return refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened and where they are more likely than not to be tortured.' In the old days, asylum seekers were rarely detained.”
Illustration Credit: Brian Stauffer
Source: VillageVoice

An article (“Asylum Insanity: Welcome to the Land of the Free;” April 8, 2014), by , in The Village Voice writes that it is no easy matter for foreigners to obtain asylum in the United States; it is often the case that when asylum seekers land in America, they are immediately placed in detention.

Over the past five months, the Voice visited detainees at two immigration detention centers and conducted extensive interviews with outreach workers, attorneys, academics, and other experts on the asylum process. Our investigation revealed how a process created to save innocent lives has come to embody some of the worst aspects of American immigration policy: The nation's system of mass deportations and incarceration has devastating consequences for vulnerable individuals who seek nothing more than safety and a new beginning.

The immigration overhaul the Senate passed in June 2013 addresses several issues with asylum, but the legislation remains stalled in the House of Representatives. Raising concerns about fraudulent claims, some Republican leaders are now pushing draconian measures that would put even more asylum seekers behind bars. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has said the asylum system is "exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States."

"The tone of immigration politics, even when it comes to asylum seekers, has gotten really vicious," says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. "People have generally forgotten what it means to be seeking asylum in our country. It's really disturbing, and I think it's a sad commentary on how easily a minority of elected officials can hijack an issue that should really speak to core American values."

Though the political climate looks bleak for advocates of asylum reform, an ongoing pilot project offers a glimmer of hope. The project allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at facilities in New York City, Newark, San Antonio, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul to release select detainees seeking asylum into a program coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. As of March 31, the program has helped secure temporary housing and social services for 32 people, including survivors of torture, victims of domestic abuse, and LGBT individuals, all of whom would otherwise have remained jailed indefinitely.

"There's growing recognition from ICE that maybe detention is not appropriate for all of these folks," says Megan Bremer, a staff attorney at LIRS. Early successes aside, Bremer cautions that the arrangement is only temporary and receives zero government funding. "A lot of programs locally are running on a deficit. If it wasn't for all the volunteers providing time and services, the program would not be in existence."

Beyond the humanitarian concerns, the cost of detaining asylum seekers and other nonviolent immigrants creates an enormous burden for American taxpayers. The Department of Homeland Security budget for "custody operations" in the 2014 fiscal year is $1.84 billion. According to DHS's own estimates, if the agency used electronic ankle monitoring and other less expensive alternatives instead of detention, the government could save more than $1.44 billion annually: a 78 percent reduction in costs.

Yet every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants like Mohamed— who committed no crime beyond seeking to save his own life—are locked up for weeks, months, and even years. And if they are sent home, deportation can be tantamount to a death sentence.
America is not alone in viewing all individuals who enter its borders in non-traditional ways as suspicious or suspect; many nations act in similar ways, but not all resort to detention, or act so hostile to humans who want a better life. Despite this, America remains a destination of choice for many, if not most, seeking asylum, as a land of freedom from the many types of persecution they face in their lands of origins.

That America acts in this manner is not new; it was the same after the First World War. An article on U.S. immigration policy, which was essentially based on restricting "certain races," and instituting quotas, notes:
Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern Europeans and Russians who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. This ultimately resulted in precluding the all "extra" immigration to the United States, including Jews fleeing Nazi German persecution.
The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.
Although it allowed hundreds of thousands of displaced persons (DPS) to enter its borders after the Second World War, including many displaced Jews, the U.S. became slightly more tolerant to all immigrants only two decades after the end of the Second World War, in 1965, with the passage of Hart-Celler Act as part of President Johnson's Great Society programs.

One can argue, and perhaps it is a weak or immoral argument, that a nation can decide whom it wants within its borders; it seems that the United States has always done that, and the kind of thinking and restrictive legislation currently in place is nothing new. It might be that mass communication makes it seem such ideas are under somewhat more scrutiny than they have been in the past.

The United States, despite its flaws, will draw millions of individuals from other nations each year—some legal (documented), some illegal (undocumented)—because its flaws are arguably significantly less than those of the nations from which these people come. And a small proportion of them will eventually become citizens, contributing to the nation's betterment.

You can read the rest of the article at [VilVoice].

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