10-28-2011By Eleanor Acer
Director, Refugee Protection Program
Today we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. As noted in an op-ed by former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in today’s New York Times, the words of the famous Emma Lazarus poem which appear at the statue’s base — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — have been turned on their heads by U.S. immigration detention practices.
Earlier this month, Human Rights First issued a report that assesses the progress of U.S. immigration authorities in transforming the U.S. immigration detention system away from its reliance on jails and jail-like facilities, to facilities with conditions more appropriate for the detention of civil immigration law detainees. In this report, Human Rights First found that, two years after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement committed to reforming the immigration detention system, the overwhelming majority of detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees are still held in jails or jail-like facilities – at a cost of over $2 billion a year. The report also found that detained asylum seekers and other immigration detainees lack adequate access to legal counsel and to immigration court custody hearings (to quickly review ICE detention determinations). At the same time, ICE has not expanded its use of cost-effective alternatives to detention nationwide in order to reduce the number of individuals who are detained – at significant governmental expense – unnecessarily.
There is much that can be done to improve the ways in which the United States welcomes those who come to this country “yearning to breathe free.” In its report, Human Rights First outlines a comprehensive set of recommendations for the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – including to:
- Ensure that asylum seekers and other immigrants are not unnecessarily detained – including by providing access to prompt immigration court custody hearings and expanding the use of cost effective alternatives to detention to release individuals who do not need to be detained.
- End the use of jails and jail-like facilities to detain asylum seekers and other immigration detainees – instead using facilities that are more appropriate for civil immigration law detainees, where for example they can wear civilian clothing, have contact visits, and can move freely within and to outdoor areas within a closed facility.
- Improve access to legal assistance and fair procedures – including by funding legal orientation presentations and taking steps to support the provision of legal counsel to indigent asylum seekers and immigrants.
We join in Mr. Morgenthau’s call to Americans to honor Lady Liberty by heeding the stirring words of Emma Lazarus. This country can and should do better.