HOUSTON (BP) -- Each year, asylum seekers come to the United States seeking refuge from religious and other forms of persecution. Desiring new lives of freedom and dignity, many confront a system that, in the name of security, treats them like criminals.
Such was the finding of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a 2005 study and the 2007 follow-up report by the independent bipartisan federal advisory body on which we serve.
Unfortunately, to this day, little has changed.
In the 2005 congressionally mandated study, USCIRF detailed how, in a process known as expedited removal, asylum seekers are detained and can be deported without ever seeing an immigration judge.
While inspecting detention facilities across the United States, including the Port Isabel and Laredo detention centers in Texas, we found asylum seekers handled like criminals. They wore handcuffs, shared space with criminals, endured inmate counts and invasive searches, had limited contact with families and legal counsel, and faced staff who were ill-prepared to address what led them to flee and seek asylum -- the effects of torture, persecution or other abuse.
USCIRF issued 18 recommendations that would create a more just and humane system while meeting security needs. Calling on our government to stop detaining asylum seekers in jail-like conditions, we supported detention only when necessary and in facilities employing fair and humane standards.
In 2007, USCIRF issued a report card noting no significant improvement in the treatment of asylum seekers.
More than two years ago, in 2009, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) unveiled a plan that, if fully implemented, would bring genuine reforms.
The plan envisioned a new asylum-seeker detention system, with facilities holding only non-criminal populations in locations with access to legal services, emergency rooms and transportation. By the end of fiscal year 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was to revise its detention standards to reflect the proper conditions for noncriminal populations and review its contracts with facilities to ensure compliance. ICE was to devise a system to place asylum seekers in more appropriate facilities. The newly established Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP) was to help implement the reforms.
A few positive steps have since been taken. In December 2009, ICE issued parole guidelines for asylum seekers in expedited removal proceedings that reflect USCIRF's recommendations. It also is developing two new facilities, including one in Karnes County, Texas, and has moved some asylum seekers to more appropriate centers and instituted reforms in some existing facilities, including Texas' Hutto detention center.
Nonetheless, over the past two years, the promise of further reform has been unfulfilled. Most asylum seekers still are detained in jail-like conditions; ICE has failed to develop new standards, and one of the two new detention facilities under construction is in a rural area far from legal service providers.
ICE's employee union has questioned security and costs and ignored USCIRF's 2005 findings that facilities with non-penal standards are safe, secure and cost-effective.
The treatment of individuals fleeing persecution and seeking America's protection is both shameful and unnecessary. It denies our identity as a free people, our commitments under international law, and practical and tested alternatives to detention for people seeking asylum on our shores.
It is time to fulfill the promises of real reform that were made two years ago. We urge ICE to match words with deeds, honoring our history, heritage and humanity by truly welcoming those who have escaped persecution. Don't treat them like criminals.
This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle. Used by permission. Felice Gaer and Richard Land serve as commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Land also is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
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