12-16-2011By Annie Sovcik
Advocacy Counsel, Refugee Protection Program
When Pedro, who was raised in Cameroon, returned to Equatorial Guinea, his country of citizenship, at age 20, the government accused him of being a “foreigner,” a “spy” and working for “the opposition.” Consequently, between 2000 and 2009, he was arrested 21 times and subjected to severe and repeated torture. Pedro bears scars on his body from the torture and beatings he received before obtaining a visa to the United States and fleeing for his life in search of protection.
Upon arrival at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C., Pedro handed his visa to the U.S. customs official and explained he was here to seek asylum. Contrary to his expectations, though consistent with highly flawed U.S. immigration laws and policies, rather than being welcomed into United States, Pedro was handcuffed, shacked and taken to a jail several hours from the airport. In a video interview produced by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pedro describes his experience in the U.S. jail as “like a civilized form of torture.”
Tragically, Pedro story is not uncommon. In an op-ed published this week in the Houston Chronicle, Felice Gaer, of The American Jewish Committee, and Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, both Commissioners with the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), explain that “each year, asylum seekers come to the United States seeking refuge from religious and other forms of persecution. Desiring new lives of freedom and dignity, many confront a system that, in the name of security, treats them like criminals.”
The Commissioners explain:
In the 2005 congressionally-mandated study, USCIRF detailed how, in a process known as expedited removal, asylum seekers are detained and can be deported without ever seeing an immigration judge. While inspecting detention facilities across the United States, including the Port Isabel and Laredo detention centers in Texas, we found asylum seekers handled like criminals. They wore handcuffs, shared space with criminals, endured inmate counts and invasive searches, had limited contact with families and legal counsel, and faced staff who were ill-prepared to address what led them to flee and seek asylum – the effects of torture, persecution or other abuse.
Despite a 2009 commitment to overhaul the U.S. immigration detention system not much has changed in the past two years. In Human Rights First’s October 2011 report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review,” we found that 50 percent of immigration detainees continue to be held in actual jails. While parole policies for asylum seekers have improved in recent years, asylum seekers continue to be subjected to mandatory detention upon arrival and many are held in jails and jail-like facilities for months – without adequate due process safeguards – while their claims to asylum are adjudicated.
Gaer and Land conclude, “The treatment of individuals fleeing persecution and seeking America’s protection is both shameful and unnecessary. It denies our identity as a free people, our commitments under international law, and practical and tested alternatives to detention for people seeking asylum on our shores.”