U.S. Must Show Global Leadership on World Refugee Day

New York City—To mark World Refugee Day, Human Rights First calls the Obama Administration to uphold the United States’ commitment to protecting the persecuted by ending the detention of women and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. World Refugee Day comes as the United States struggles to show leadership on refugee protection at home and abroad.

“The United States has a long tradition of global leadership in the protection of refugees who flee from violence and persecution,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “But the administration’s policy of sending mothers and children seeking asylum  to immigration detention facilities undermines U.S. leadership and violates the nation’s commitments under the Refugee Convention.  In order to ensure that America continues to stand as a beacon for the rest of the world, U.S. domestic policies must set a better example for other nations.”

In recent weeks, 136 members of Congress and 33 senators have joined religious leaders, leading women’s organizations, groups focused on the protection of women from violence, human rights groups, legal associations such as the American Bar Association, and others in urging that the administration stop detaining women and children seeking asylum, and put in place policies that better align with the United States’ long history of leadership in protecting the persecuted. Several congressmen are slated to visit family detention facilities in Dilley and Karnes, Texas early next week.

In the wake of these calls, Human Rights First has issued a new report assessing the administration’s family detention policy, and concluding that this immigration detention policy is expensive, runs counter to American ideals, and is out of step with international law.

The report, “U.S. Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One-Year Update,” finds that mothers and children held at these facilities face an array of obstacles, including lack of counsel, barriers to asylum, and the trauma of detention.  Despite the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) announcement of “actions” to improve oversight of family detention, Human Rights First found that many mothers and children continue to be sent to immigration detention, continue to face an egregious lack of counsel, continue to have their limited access to counsel hampered by detention facility staff, and continue to be blocked or delayed from release by the demand that they pay bond amounts too high for them to afford given their lack of financial resources.  In many cases, ICE’s setting of unduly high bond extends the detention of mothers and children for weeks or months, wasting government resources by increasing the length of detention and requiring an immigration court bond hearing.

To honor the best traditions of U.S. protection for refugees and asylum seekers, the Obama Administration should:

  • End the detention of families and children. In cases where additional support is needed to assure appearance, individuals can be referred into community-based case management or other alternative programs which are more humane and cost-effective.
  • End prolonged immigration detention and the use of prohibitively high bonds. To the extent family detention continues, and with respect to all immigration detention, ICE should set bonds at levels that asylum seekers can actually afford, and use parole and alternative measures for those who are indigent.
  • Abandon the deterrence-based detention approach. The Obama Administration and immigration authorities at all levels should stop basing decisions to send or hold one person in immigration detention based on the desire to deter others from coming to the United States, and should stop defending this approach in federal court litigation.
  • Support staffing for the immigration courts and asylum office and counsel for asylum seekers and other immigration detainees. Congress should also support funding for counsel and legal orientations for asylum seekers and others held in immigration detention, as these measures promote efficiency, cost-savings, fairness and justice.
  • Prevent improper denials of access to asylum.  The Obama Administration should create stronger oversight mechanisms and take additional steps to ensure that government agencies comply with U.S. commitments under refugee protection and human rights conventions and law.

“There are now more refugees around the world than at any point in modern history,” noted Acer. “The world is in dire need of leadership on refugee protection. The United States must ensure that its policies serve as a model for other nations.”


Published on June 20, 2015


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