The right thing to do for asylum-seekers

“The time to fix our broken immigration system is now.” President Obama made this statement on the Senate floor in May 2007. Over five years later, “now” might be getting a little closer. With a large Latino turnout being credited as a key part of President Obama’s re-election this November, immigration reform is poised to take center stage in the national spotlight in the coming years. Of newcomers to the United States, the President stated, “it is the constant flow of immigrants that help make America what it is. […] To this day America reaps incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for the best and brightest from across the globe.”[1] Both parties are changing their tone and easing their anti-immigrant rhetoric and on June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came to the United States as children.

But despite the improvement in the political climate, it is important to note that immigrants have faced an increasingly hostile environment in the last several years and a policy of rampant enforcement that is alarming. The policies regarding deportation and detention have resulted in the unfair punishment of thousands seeking a new life in the United States.

  • Since 2009, the average number of deportations per year is about 400,000 which is double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term and thirty per cent more that the average when he left office.[2]
  • In 2011, Minnesota deported 3,215 individuals which is nearly a fifty per cent increase from 2006.[3]
  • In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants, including children, in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds [4]
  • About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all.[5]

These policies are also not consistent with international human rights law.[6] For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), non-citizens within the United States have the right to liberty and security of person, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, and are entitled to prompt review of their detention by an independent court.[7] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has reported that “the United States detention and deportation system for migrants lacks the kinds of safeguards that prevent certain deportation decisions and the detention of certain immigrants from being arbitrary within the ICCPR.”[8]

The conditions in detention facilities can be appalling and detainees have complained about grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, and discrimination.[9] In addition, NGOs have reported the use of shackling, tasers, and solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes and the lack of proper medication, nutrition, and recreation.[10] The immigrants The Advocates works with, people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and hoping to gain asylum in the United States, are particularly vulnerable. Asylum seekers are often victims of violence, sexual assault, and torture and being held in a prison-like setting can have significant long-term mental health consequences.

Although The Advocates’ asylum program does far better than the average in helping people obtain asylum, the asylum grant rate in our Immigration Court is one of the lowest in the country at seventeen percent, while the national average is sixty-one percent.[11] Persons seeking asylum often have to wait up to three years to have their cases decided by a judge. Meanwhile, they cannot reunite with their families who they have often left behind when escaping the horrors of persecution and torture.

Recently, President Obama stated, “As long as I’m president, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy … not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do period.”[12] It is more important than ever, in this changing environment, for those who believe in positive immigration reform to push to define “the right thing to do.” The Advocates for Human Rights has advocated locally and nationally to ensure the rights of thousands of immigrants and has stood against mandatory detention. In the coming years, The Advocates will continue to push to change our immigration system so that it does not focus on punishment and imprisonment but instead secures dignity, fairness, and human rights for all.

What you can go to get involved:

-Call your Congressperson to tell them it is time to create fair and humane immigration laws and procedures that reflect international norms of human rights.

-Volunteer for The Advocates as pro bono counsel to represent low-income asylum seekers from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Advocates has been doing this work for almost thirty years and has mentor attorneys and resources to help you. If you are an attorney or interpreter and would like to help on an asylum case please contact Sarah Brenes at sbrenes [at] advrights [dot] org.

-Donate to The Advocates to support the asylum program and the other work we do to help immigrants. These new Americans make valuable contributions to our communities and culture, are committed to our country, and have the same human rights as our immigrant ancestors did.

-Join the Detention Watch Network! The Advocates is a steering committee member of the Detention Watch Network which is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for humane reform so that all who come to our shores receive fair and humane treatment. Click here to get involved: http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/

Deepinder Singh Mayell is the Director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.


[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-comprehensive-immigration-reform

[2] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Yearbook, February 2012

[3] http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/charges/deport_filing_charge.php

[4] http://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/detention

[5] http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/aboutdetention

[6] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 2, 7, 9, 10, 13, and 14.

[7] ICCPR, art. 9.

[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, ¶ 24 (2008).

[9] http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/node/2383

[10] http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/node/2383

[11] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Year Book, February 2012

[12] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/15/remarks-president-immigration

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