Some positive news in detention reform today:
In an effort to protect U.S. citizens and green card holders from being mistakenly detained and deported, today Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the “Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act.” The “Protect Act” establishes minimum standards of procedure and treatment for U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and immigrants who are affected by immigration detention practices, including asylum seekers. Under the bill, the Secretary of Homeland Security is required to determine whether there are reasons to detain an asylum seeker based upon an individual assessment of whether the asylum seeker poses a risk of flight or danger to others. This decision would be subject to review by an immigration judge, a critical due process protection that arriving asylum seekers – remarkably – do not currently receive.
In our May 2009 report, U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, Human Rights First found that refugees arriving in the United States in search of asylum protection are often detained for months in jails or jail-like facilities as their cases are adjudicated. As detailed in the report, the U.S. government has detained over 48,000 asylum seekers since 2003, at a cost of over $300 million. Upon arrival, asylum seekers subject to a practice known as expedited removal are automatically held in mandatory detention. After an asylum seeker establishes a credible fear of persecution, she is eligible for release, but the parole decision belongs to her deportation officer – a DHS employee – and parole is regularly and inexplicably denied. She does not have the right to go before a judge to have her custody reviewed. In these cases, DHS acts as both jailer and judge in determining whether the asylum seeker can be released from detention. As a result, asylum seekers – who have committed no crime – are often subject to prolonged and arbitrary detention.
We detail important recommendations to improve this system in our May 2009 report, including: 1) all detained asylum seekers should be provided with the safeguard of an immigration court custody hearing; 2) a nationwide program of alternatives to detention; 3) a revised parole policy. The bill introduced today by Sens. Menendez, Kennedy, and Gillibrand would advance these recommendations and help bring U.S. law closer in line with international human rights standards, while helping to restore this country’s longstanding commitment to protect those who flee from persecution.