From our FOIA of HRIFA Reports: Over 140,000 Asylum Seekers Detained Between 2015 and 2017
By Rebecca Gendelman, Senior Research and Policy Counsel, Refugee Protection
The Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA) of 1998 requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to produce and provide to Congress annual reports on the detention of asylum seekers. While the law mandates these reports be available to the public upon request, they have not been publicly produced since the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 HRIFA report was released seven years ago. Without these reports, the public is denied information on the widespread detention of asylum seekers in often dangerous and inhumane Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.
In April 2019, Human Rights First requested the FY 2015 to FY 2018 HRIFA reports through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. ICE claimed that “no records responsive to your request were found,” which Human Rights First successfully appealed administratively in 2020. In late February 2022, ICE finally produced the FY 2015, 2016, and 2017 HRIFA reports but did not provide the requested FY 2018 report. No other recent HRIFA reports have been publicly posted by the agency.
HRIFA reports for FY 2015 to 2017 confirm that the U.S. government has long treated detention as the default for people seeking safety in the United States. Though ICE has legal authority to release people from detention at any time, it routinely and needless jails asylum seekers for prolonged periods.
In 2014, the Obama administration issued a set of priorities for the apprehension, detention, and removal of immigrants, which targeted individuals “apprehended at the border or ports of entry while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States.” This policy led to the widespread and prolonged detention of asylum seekers requesting safety at the border. The Trump administration rescinded this guidance and issued an Executive Order in 2017 directing DHS to allocate all available resources to construct and operate detention facilities and to incarcerate immigrants for the duration of their court proceedings, which resulted in the mass detention of asylum seekers and blanket denials of release.
The newly released HRIFA reports confirm the mass, needless jailing of asylum seekers and underscore the urgent need to avoid continued detention of people seeking protection. The following data is based on Human Rights First’s analysis of the FY 2015 to 2017 HRIFA Reports:
Between FY 2015 and 2017, the United States jailed at least 140,000 asylum seekers who were placed in expedited removal and received credible fear screenings.
- At least 144,364 asylum seekers — 93.8 percent of asylum seekers placed in expedited removal who underwent credible fear screenings (144,364 of 153,852) — and likely far more, were detained by the U.S. government from FY 2015 to 2017.
-This total does not include asylum seekers who were placed directly into removal proceedings and not subjected to expedited removal/credible fear, as the HRIFA reports do not reflect how many individuals are counted as both detained credible fear applicants and defensive applicants in removal proceedings.
It also does not account for ICE’s apparent undercounting of detained asylum seekers, as discussed in detail below.
- Asylum seekers placed in expedited removal and detained by ICE in FY 2015 to 2017 had fled persecution and torture in countries across the world, including:
-Bangladesh – 1,034 asylum seekers
-Cameroon – 267 asylum seekers
-China – 2,558 asylum seekers
-El Salvador – 46,889 asylum seekers
-Eritrea – 251 asylum seekers
-Ghana – 609 asylum seekers
-Guatemala – 27,203 asylum seekers
-Haiti – 2,341 asylum seekers
-Honduras – 31,597 asylum seekers
-Mexico – 11,857 asylum seekers
-Nicaragua – 1,280 asylum seekers
-Nigeria – 237 asylum seekers
-Pakistan – 435 asylum seekers
-Somalia – 754 asylum seekers
-Venezuela – 334 asylum seekers
The U.S. government incarcerated over 42 percent of asylum seekers in immigration court removal proceedings from FY 2015 to 2017 in ICE detention centers.
- From FY 2015 to 2017, the U.S. government detained 75,777 of 178,983 asylum seekers in immigration court removal proceedings.
- In its HRIFA reports, ICE appears to undercount asylum seekers in its HRIFA reports.
-The Executive Office for Immigration Review’s statistical report for FY 2017 reflects that 120,709 asylum applications were initially filed in immigration court proceedings that year, whereas the HRIFA report indicates 86,484 total asylum applicants in immigration court proceedings in FY 2017.
-Similarly, the Syracuse University Transactional Records Clearinghouse (TRAC), which analyzes immigration court data found that 52,337 asylum seekers who filed asylum applications in FY 2017 were detained at some point during their proceedings compared to the HRIFA report which states that 42,530 asylum applicants in immigration court proceedings were detained.
- After FY 2015, DHS sharply increased more than six-fold the detention of asylum seekers who were in immigration court removal proceedings.
-In FY 2016 and 2017, ICE detained on average 48.7 percent of all asylum seekers in immigration court proceedings compared to 7.7 percent in FY 2015.
From FY 2015 to FY 2017, ICE detained asylum seekers with immigration court cases for an average of over 2.5 months while their applications for refugee protection were being considered instead of allowing them to wait in the community.
- Many asylum seekers with immigration court cases were detained far longer, with thousands detained for more than six months between FY 2015 and 2017.
As women increasingly fled El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to escape gender- and gang-based violence and other persecution, the U.S. government responded by jailing them.
- From FY 2015 to FY 2017, DHS detained over 68,000 asylum-seeking women who were placed into expedited removal. The total number of detained women is likely higher, but it is not possible to determine from the HRIFA reports the number of detained women who were placed directly into removal proceedings without undergoing the credible fear process. The data does not specify nationalities of the women detained.
During the Obama and Trump administrations’ use of family detention to punish and deter people seeking safety, the United States detained tens of thousands of children.
- From FY 2015 to 2017, over 34,000 minors were placed into expedited removal and jailed in family detention centers. The total number of detained children is likely higher as many families with children were placed directly into removal proceedings without undergoing the credible fear process.
The Biden administration has already detained tens of thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom sought protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. Like prior administrations, the Biden administration has enacted flawed policies that target for apprehension and deportation asylum seekers who cross the border to seek safety.
As of March 17, 2022, 86% of the 154,749 people placed by the Biden administration in ICE detention centers in FY 2022 were transferred from Customs and Border Protection custody, many of them likely asylum seekers who requested protection at the border.
Since President Biden took office, DHS has subjected at least 55,000 people to the expedited removal process, over 38,000 of whom established a credible fear of persecution and many others who wrongly received negative credible fear determinations. The vast majority of these asylum seekers were likely detained during credible fear screenings, as the HRIFA reports confirm.
DHS should comply with U.S. law and make available all other existing HRIFA reports on the detention of asylum seekers. In March 2022, Human Rights First filed a FOIA request for the FY 2018 to 2021 reports but has not yet received a response.
The HRIFA reports Human Rights First recently received through FOIA can be found here:
Some prior HRIFA reports that are not available on the ICE FOIA Library can be found here: