Jailing of Asylum-Seekers Under Biden Administration Inflicting Trauma

NEW YORK – In a report released today, titled “I’m a Prisoner Here”: Biden Administration Policies Lock Up Asylum-Seekers, Human Rights First documents that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has sent tens of thousands of people seeking asylum to jails where they suffer lengthy detentions, severe physical and psychological harm, medical neglect, discrimination, and other abuses.

“As the Biden administration ends the illegal Title 42 expulsion policy, ​​it should not perpetuate the cruel and unnecessary use of detention against people seeking refuge in this country,” said Rebecca Gendelman, associate attorney for Refugee Protection research at Human Rights First and author of the report. “The government has legal authority to parole asylum-seekers and other immigrants. Its choice to detain them instead endangers lives, separates families, inflicts trauma, wastes resources and punishes people for exercising their legal right to request asylum.”

While the Biden administration has taken some steps to limit detention, under its flawed “enforcement priorities” guidance, DHS has treated adult asylum-seekers as priorities for detention and deportation—including political dissidents, LGBTQ individuals, torture survivors, human rights activists, and survivors of gender-based violence—and jailed them for prolonged periods instead of allowing them to pursue their cases while living safely with their U.S. families and communities.

These include many of the 66,775 asylum-seekers referred for credible fear interviews, the preliminary screening in the asylum process for individuals subjected to expedited removal.

The report is based on information about 270 asylum-seekers and immigrants jailed by ICE under the current administration, including direct interviews with 76 of them.

Asylum-seekers tracked by Human Rights First were jailed on average for approximately 3.7 months after coming to the United States to seek asylum since President Biden took office. Asylum-seekers from Black-majority countries tracked by Human Rights First suffered longer periods of detention, averaging 27 percent longer detention than asylum-seekers from other countries.

Other findings include:

  • The “enforcement priorities” guidance has fueled prolonged, months-long detention of people seeking safety in the United States. Asylum-seekers subjected to prolonged jailing by the Biden administration include: a Nicaraguan asylum-seeker detained for three months and denied parole as a “border security” enforcement priority; a Venezuelan asylum-seeker living with HIV imprisoned for nearly five months; and a Haitian political activist fleeing death threats detained for three months. DHS has refused to exercise its legal authority to release many asylum-seekers including those who establish a credible fear of persecution.
  • In the wake of the “enforcement priorities” guidance, DHS has separated families seeking refuge at the border, illegally subjected children to detention in adult facilities, endangered many LGBTQ asylum-seekers, and placed people with serious medical conditions at heightened risk during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2021, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker died of complications from AIDS and COVID-19 after five months in detention.
  • The administration has persisted in using fundamentally flawed expedited removal against detained asylum-seekers. As a result, DHS has illegally deported asylum-seekers without credible fear interviews or ordered people removed through plainly erroneous negative credible fear determinations.
  • Black asylum-seekers and immigrants in ICE detention have been subjected to outrageous anti-Black abuse and mistreatment. ICE officers cut off Black people’s hair worn in braids or locks, an affront to dignity and physical integrity with racially-disparate impact. Human Rights First also received reports of racist statements and attacks by ICE and detention center staff.
  • Many asylum-seekers and other immigrants held in U.S. detention centers have reported sexual, physical, and verbal abuse, punitive use of solitary confinement, denials of basic necessities, and medical neglect.

While the administration has taken some positive steps and is not currently detaining families with minor children, recently requested a reduction in funding for detention, and announced the closure of some ICE jails and reductions in others, it has drastically expanded detention capacity elsewhere and continues to jail asylum-seekers for prolonged periods. The administration also continues to separate families through its use of detention.

The report calls for the Biden administration to end the mass detention of asylum-seekers and provide a true humanitarian welcome to people seeking refugee protection at the border, including through community-based case support initiatives.


Published on April 21, 2022


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