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Give me your tired, your poor - let's lock 'em up! 

Report blasts treatment of asylum applicants

The poem that graces the Statue of Liberty - in which she beckons the world's poor and huddled masses - today sounds totally quaint. The reality is that to all but the lucky few, America's doors are shut fast. Sure, sneaking through our porous borders might be easy for terrorists. But for those looking to live here legally, our message is clear: Go home.

Nowhere is that attitude clearer than in the hundreds of ports of entry where immigration inspectors examine the papers and motives of those looking to enter the U.S. In cities across America, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, foreigners seeking asylum are, by and large, treated like criminals.

That's not liberal whining; it's actually one of the many findings of a bipartisan government commission that spent almost two years studying the way asylum seekers are treated, from the moment they land at an airport and talk to their first immigration official, to the months they're detained in jails, to the day when immigration judges finally decide whether they can stay.

The 532-page study, which is available at www.uscirf.gov, illuminates a system that is profoundly flawed, not only from a human rights standpoint, but from a national security one. "There are gross inconsistencies and inequities throughout the system," says Mark Hetfield, who directed the study for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The study focuses specifically on a program called "expedited removal." Instituted in the wake of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, expedited removal demands that aliens arriving at our borders without the proper documentation be turned around immediately. However, if that alien expresses a "credible fear" of returning to his home country, he can request asylum, which can be granted by an immigration judge.

The idea behind expedited removal was to strike a balance between strengthening our borders and allowing those fleeing persecution to find a haven in the U.S. The program "does create a system which could make us secure and could also protect asylum seekers," Hetfield says. "The problem is it's being so inconsistently implemented right now that it's not doing that."

Consider detention. While asylum hopefuls wait for their court date, they can either be released into the U.S. or jailed. If you're a foreigner landing at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, chances are you'll be detained. In fact, from October 2002 through September 2003, Atlanta's immigration office detained 139 asylum seekers, while releasing only 55 to await a court date. That's much looser than in New Orleans, which detained 190 aliens and released one. Contrast that to Harlingen, Texas, where immigration officials released 98 percent of the asylum applicants they processed - 620 in all.

"It's like a board game. Everything depends on where you land," Hetfield says. "If you land in Miami, you'll certainly be released. And you'll probably get asylum. If you land in Atlanta, you won't be released and you won't get asylum, with the same case and the same facts. It's not a fair system, and it's got to be more equitable from city to city."

Once behind bars, detainees often mingle with the resident population - some of them convicted criminals. In fact, when it comes to how immigrants are treated, there's little to distinguish the detainee from the criminal. Their mail is read. Visiting hours are limited. Complainers are given solitary confinement. Only one of 19 facilities examined said it didn't use physical restraints on detainees. One jail in Illinois goes so far as to truss up detainees in handcuffs, belly chains and leg shackles when they leave the facility.

"We're a nation of immigrants, and we've always welcomed asylum seekers and refugees and prided ourselves on that," Hetfield says. "The fact that we now take them in and throw them in prison without them having even been suspected of a crime is really an embarrassment. It's a shame."

The average stay is 64 days; one out of three immigrants will be jailed for more than 90 days. From Atlanta, detainees are shipped all over the South, from the Atlanta Pretrial Detention Center to county jails throughout Georgia to jails as far away as Louisiana. While most spend their entire stay in a single facility, more than 350 detainees seeking asylum in 2003 were moved around to at least five jails, and a few to as many as 13 jails.

The constant transfers make it hard for detainees to keep in touch with their lawyers, says Glenn Fogle, an Atlanta immigration attorney. Fogle has clients as far away as the Tensas Parish Detention Center, almost 500 miles away in northeastern Louisiana. Tensas is one of the many county jails that do big business by charging the government up to $200 a day to house detainees.

"They're trying to break the person so he withdraws his case and gets sent back," Fogle claims. "That's the bottom line."

Of course, detainees with lawyers are the lucky ones. Even though an asylum hearing is considered "adversarial" - that is, a government attorney is on hand to argue against granting asylum - there is no "court-appointed" attorney for the alien. He must pay for the attorney himself.

Such an expense is crucial to any chance of winning asylum; as the commission study shows, an alien with an attorney has about a one in four chance of winning asylum. Without an attorney, his odds drop to one in 50.

Ultimately, it is an immigration judge who will decide whether an applicant's "credible fear" is enough to justify asylum. And of the 220 immigration judges in America, few have been tougher than Atlanta's. As CL revealed in a cover story last year, ("Insane Asylum," Feb. 26, 2004), rarely does an applicant find a friendly ear in an Atlanta immigration judge. Nationwide, immigration judges grant 22 percent of asylum cases. In Atlanta, the percentage is less than 7.

In the report, the commission is recommending to the Department of Homeland Security that asylum officers be given the power to grant asylum to those who are deserving, without having to send the applicant through the court process. The commission also calls for a high-level official within Homeland Security to monitor the system.

Hetfield says Homeland Security is preparing a response to the report.

Says Fogle, "People think, 'Oh, I'm coming to America. Everything's gonna be OK.' Then they get here and find out what it's really all about."

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