By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
Beyond the humanitarian concerns, the cost of detaining asylum seekers and other nonviolent immigrants creates an enormous burden for American taxpayers. The Department of Homeland Security budget for "custody operations" in the 2014 fiscal year is $1.84 billion. According to DHS's own estimates, if the agency used electronic ankle monitoring and other less expensive alternatives instead of detention, the government could save more than $1.44 billion annually: a 78 percent reduction in costs.
Yet every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants like Mohamed — who committed no crime beyond seeking to save his own life — are locked up for weeks, months and even years. And if they are sent home, deportation can be tantamount to a death sentence.
The two most famous asylum seekers in recent history are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, but those cases are hardly typical. The ex-National Security Agency contractor fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow after supplying journalists with a trove of information about controversial U.S. spy tactics; the WikiLeaks co-founder sought refuge in an Ecuadorian embassy in London amid fears he'd be extradited to Sweden to face sexual-assault charges. Perhaps the only thing these men have in common with the average asylum seeker in the U.S. is that they are stuck in legal limbo waiting to resolve their claims.
Unlike Snowden and Assange, the vast majority of asylum seekers are anonymous. In 2012, according to the United Nations, 45 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced owing to persecution and conflict. While the majority became refugees, roughly 1 million sought political asylum. (The only difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is location: Refugees typically remain near their homeland when they initiate the process, while asylum seekers arrive at their desired destination without prior authorization.)
Several ancient societies, including the Greeks, Hebrews and Egyptians, respected the right of asylum, but the framework that exists today was established in 1951 to deal with millions of displaced people in the aftermath of World War II. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agreed to "not return refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened and where they are more likely than not to be tortured." In the old days, asylum seekers were rarely detained.
With the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, everything changed. Later that year, 60 Minutes broadcast a report emphasizing the fact that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the suspected mastermind behind the attack, had applied for asylum. The sound bite that stuck was provided by a representative from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant group: "Every single person on the planet Earth, if he gets into this country, can stay indefinitely by saying two magic words: 'political asylum.'"
In truth, Abdel Rahman had entered the U.S. on a tourist visa and received a green card despite his status on a terrorist watch list. He didn't apply for asylum until years later, and his claim was ultimately rejected. But the damage was done. According to a 1998 report on asylum by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., the 60 Minutes segment "created the impression that few, if any, claims of asylum in the United States are legitimate." In the aftermath, federal agencies adopted more stringent standards for identification of asylum seekers (typically requiring a passport, birth certificate or other form of ID) and imposed a minimum 180-day waiting period before issuing a work permit.
Unsatisfied with these reforms and reacting to a broader influx of undocumented immigrants, Congress passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in 1996. The legislation set a one-year deadline for immigrants to apply for asylum and created an "expedited removal" process to swiftly deport anybody who arrived at a port of entry without proper documentation. For the first time in history, arriving asylum seekers were subject to mandatory detention.
"That became somewhat of a game-changer," says Annie Sovcik, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Victims of Torture. "From there, you started to see an overall growth in the detention system itself, both in the number of people detained on a daily and annual basis, as well as in the different categories of people that are held."
The immigration detention boom had begun, and it would only get bigger. The number of beds in immigration jails has more than quintupled since 1996, rising from 6,280 to 34,000 in 250 facilities across the nation in 2014. Since 2006, Congress has required ICE to keep all 34,000 of those beds perpetually filled, a provision known as the "bed mandate." Critics of this no-vacancy policy argue that civil immigration offenders with no criminal history have no business behind bars.
Partnering with the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition, Sovcik co-authored a report in 2013 about detention's psychological toll on asylum seekers. Drawing on testimony from dozens of former detainees, the report details the appalling conditions found in some detention facilities along the Southern border. The findings echoed another report from 2013 by Americans for Immigrant Justice.
"The temperature in the cells is so cold that [Customs and Border Patrol] officers themselves refer to them as 'hieleras,' or iceboxes, in Spanish. Detainees' fingers and toes turn blue and their lips chap and split due to the cold. Blankets are not provided. These crowded hieleras have no mattresses, beds or chairs," the Americans for Immigrant Justice report states.