Immigration Detention Reaches Historic Highs as Asylum Seekers Sit in Prolonged Detention

By Olga Byrne

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials expect the number of people in immigration detention to reach a historic high in the coming months. By next summer Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may be detaining as many as 47,000 immigrants. This unprecedented jump—more than 50 percent in less than a year—should cause concern even among fervent proponents of detention.

The massive increase presents serious questions about the transparency and accountability of ICE’s enforcement operations. It is believed that many, if not most, people in ICE detention are seeking asylum. Despite repeated requests for information, ICE has failed to meet its statutory requirement to provide annual reports to Congress on asylum seekers in detention. We’re in fiscal year 2017, and the most recent data provided by ICE is from fiscal year 2014. Three-year old data is of little use to lawmakers and the public amid a global refugee crisis that has provoked a series of quickly changing—and sometimes reactionary—policy responses.

There is good reason to believe that ICE’s detention of asylum seekers is out of line with both U.S. agency policies and U.S. treaty commitments. As Human Rights First reported this summer in Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers, asylum seekers eligible for release under a 2009 Asylum Parole Directive are often held in prolonged detention even though they meet release criteria. Would this increase in detention be necessary if the agency followed its own policy directive and released individuals who met the criteria?

I recently visited detention centers in Georgia and New Jersey, where I met with asylum seekers denied parole, including some who have been detained over a year. Several men painfully described their distress over the separation from spouses and children caused by their detention in facilities where phone rates are often exorbitantly high and phones fail to function.

Many were “arriving” asylum seekers—meaning they had presented themselves to authorities at an airport or official port of entry at the border—and most came from Africa. They were surprised and distressed by the fact that as arriving asylum seekers, they were denied access to court review of their detention while, on the other hand, individuals encountered by immigration enforcement between ports of entry or elsewhere within the United States are entitled to a prompt custody review by an immigration judge. As one man from a West African country stated, “[Others], they got bond and they left. But all the Africans are still here.”

The United States, like many other countries, is experiencing a humanitarian and refugee crisis at its border. Rather than massively increasing detention, DHS and ICE should implement a refugee protection approach, using detention only as a last resort and after individualized court custody review. And it should provide both lawmakers and the public basic information about who it’s holding and why.

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Published on October 28, 2016

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