American taxpayers are funding the system's dysfunction. The Department of Homeland Security budget for "custody operations" in fiscal 2014 is $1.84 billion. It costs about $160 per day to keep each asylum seeker in immigration detention. According to DHS' 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.

"They've signed up for a certain degree of hardship, But at that moment when they believe they've reached a place they can ask for help, they're handcuffed and taken into cold rooms."

Yet, every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants who committed no crime beyond seeking to save their own lives 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 cofounder sought refuge in an Ecuadorian embassy in London amid fears he'd be extradited to Sweden to face sexual-assault charges.

A map shows many of the 250 facilities where 34,000 immigrants are held, costing the Homeland Security department $1.84 billion per year.
Caleb Ferguson
A map shows many of the 250 facilities where 34,000 immigrants are held, costing the Homeland Security department $1.84 billion per year.

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. ("Refugees" typically remain near their homeland when they initiate the emigration process, while "asylum seekers" arrive at their desired destination without prior authorization.)

The legal 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 Sheik 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 arrives 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 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.

A 2013 report by Americans for Immigrant Justice described some typical conditions: "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."

"They've signed up for a certain degree of hardship during these journeys," Sovcik says of asylum seekers in general. "But at that moment when they believe they've reached a place they can ask for help, they're handcuffed and taken into cold rooms. They have no idea what's going on. There's a certain degree of shock in that experience that adds to the intensity of their trauma."

Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, with his team of researchers interviewed 70 asylum seekers for a study published in the Lancet in 2003. "What we found were very alarmingly high levels of psychological distress among asylum seekers in detention," Keller said. "There was a clear correlation between the length of time in detention and the severity of these symptoms, including depression, sadness, and hopelessness, as well as profound symptoms of anxiety and posttraumatic stress."

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KennyPowersII topcommenter

Laws and sanctions go hand in hand. Without sanctions laws and rules are merely suggestions.