Report Finds U.S. Often Greets Asylum Seekers with Prison, not Protection

Washington, DC – Since 2003, U.S. immigration authorities have spent more than $300 million to detain over 48,000 asylum seekers in U.S. prisons and prison-like facilities in a system that lacks basic due process safeguards and is inconsistent with America’s longstanding commitment to protect those who flee from persecution, according to a report released today by a leading human rights organization. “Refugees who seek protection in this country are greeted with handcuffs and prison uniforms, and they are treated like prisoners in correctional facilities,” said Eleanor Acer, the director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection Program. “New leadership at the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice should seize the opportunity to end this practice and implement some long overdue reforms, like ensuring that an asylum seeker can’t be detained for months or years without having an immigration court consider the need for continued detention.” In its report, U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, Human Rights First also found:

  • ICE has increased its use of penitentiary-like facilities by 62% in recent years and asylum seekers, who are often brought in handcuffs and sometimes shackles to these facilities, are detained for months and sometimes years in actual jails or facilities that are operated like jails
  • Some of the largest facilities are located far from legal representation and the immigration courts at some of these facilities detained asylum seekers see U.S. immigration judges only on television sets, since their immigration court asylum hearings are often conducted by video.
  • While it costs ICE about $95 a day to detain an asylum seeker, alternatives to detention cost between $10 and $14 a day, and releasing on parole an asylum seeker who satisfies the release criteria and poses no threat to the community has no daily cost.
  • ICE release policies for asylum seekers have become more restrictive in recent years, and parole rates have dropped sharply leaving some asylum seekers detained for months or years even though they met the release criteria and presented no risk to the public.

“We interviewed victims of political oppression, religious persecution, and ethnic violence from Burundi, Burma, Guinea, Iraq, Tibet and elsewhere. They were detained by ICE in U.S. prisons or prison-like conditions in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia, often for  months and sometimes years before they were granted asylum by the United States,” said Jessica Chicco, an attorney with Human Rights First. Based on its findings, Human Rights First today made the following key recommendations to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress:

  • Review of Detention: All asylum seekers should have the chance to have their continued detention reviewed by an immigration court, as other immigration detainees do.
  • Penal Conditions:  The United States should stop using jails and facilities run like jails to detain asylum seekers.  Instead, asylum seekers who are no threat to the community should be released on parole or supervision; when asylum seekers are detained, they should be held at facilities that are not modeled on criminal correctional facilities, and where they are not handcuffed, are allowed to wear their own clothes and have freedom of movement within the facility.
  • Remote Facilities: ICE should stop using jails and detention facilities located in remote areas that are far from legal representation resources, immigration courts, or an adequate pool of medical staff.

To read U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers:  Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, including Human Rights First’s complete set of recommendations, detailed accounts of asylum seekers who have been detained in U.S. facilities, visit To view an executive summary for this report, visit To read the Department of Homeland Security’s letter to Human Rights First in response to a draft of this report, click


Published on April 30, 2009


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