The Biden administration is unnecessarily jailing immigrants requesting asylum, detaining thousands for months when they could be staying with family members or in supportive circumstances where they could pursue their cases safely and at less taxpayer expense, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights First, an international human rights organization.
The report, "'I'm a Prisoner Here': Biden Administration Policies Lock Up Asylum Seekers," credits the White House with ending Trump administration attempts to limit and even halt the asylum process. However, it says Biden policies are resulting in needless mass detention of people seeking asylum, a protection that can be granted to applicants who fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
"As the administration restores compliance with U.S. refugee law at the southern U.S. border and ends Trump policy that illegally prevented people from seeking asylum, it should not substitute one rights-violating policy for another," said the report, based on information on more than 200 asylum seekers and immigrants who have been detained and interviews with 76 of them.
It cites Biden's campaign pledge to eliminate prolonged detention, but says the Department of Homeland Security "under the Biden administration has detained tens of thousands of asylum seekers, jailing many in newly opened or expanded facilities or in remote areas where they often face insurmountable barriers to fairly presenting their asylum claims."
The report comes amid growing frustration with the Biden administration from both sides of the immigration debate.
Immigration opponents, including Republicans in Congress and state GOP officials, have criticized the Biden administration for not taking a tougher stance on what to do with the record number of people waiting in Mexico to legally enter the United States and those illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.
But others who support immigration reform that would allow more people to legally live in the United States have said the Biden administration is violating the human rights of asylum seekers and must do more to sway public opinion toward supporting immigrant rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which did not participate in producing the report, also favors placing immigrants with family or in supportive community programs, said Eunice Cho, an ACLU senior staff attorney who focuses on immigration detention issues.
“The government has instead chosen to put them behind bars, sometimes for very lengthy periods of time. What we know, generally speaking, is that ICE detention is a system that's marked by rampant abuse, mistreatment and danger,” she said. “We can build a system that supports immigrants and the government's interest without the cost and the abuses that are part of this fundamentally flawed system.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement Thursday to USA TODAY that it focuses its civil immigration enforcement efforts "on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security."
ICE added it "takes seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, and commits to protecting their rights under the law."
The Human Rights First report says the health of people with serious medical conditions has been endangered by detention. It cites the case of a Venezuelan man who was incarcerated for five months before dying of complications from AIDS, pneumonia, respiratory and kidney failure and COVID-19.
The administration's detention policy has "inflicted enormous trauma and suffering," said the report's author, Rebecca Gendelman, a Human Rights First attorney focusing on refugee protection research.
A Sudanese man interviewed for the report, who identified himself as Sabri, told USA TODAY he was detained for more than five months, even though a U.S. judge granted him a positive credible fear determination – an early major step in the asylum process that means something bad would likely happen to him if he returned to his home country – just a month after arriving at the Texas border in August. Sabri, who fears persecution if he returns to Sudan, said he remained detained despite having family members in the U.S. who could have given him a place to stay.
After Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to release him from a Louisiana correctional center even though his lawyer said he was entitled to parole, Sabri wrote to make another release request. An ICE officer "told me, 'The more you write, the more you stay in prison,'" he said.
Sabri, who was separated from his wife when they arrived in the United States due to lack of marriage documentation, also said it is difficult to prepare properly for an asylum hearing while incarcerated. "So, you might get rejected," he said.
"You have to have all the evidence … to present it to the court. When you’re in a cell in a detention center, you do not have (access to) the evidence, so you might get rejected," said the man, now reunited with his wife as they continue to seek permanent asylum.
The Human Rights First report, based on information collected from February 2021 to April 2022, alleges a number of government transgressions during Biden's tenure in the White House:
• Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) incarcerated tens of thousands of immigrants who could otherwise comply with requirements of the asylum process while living with family members or in community-based case support programs. The mass jailing results from asylum seekers being designated as a threat and isn't justified, the report says.
• People from Black-majority countries requesting asylum have been detained 27% longer than those from other countries. Black asylum seekers "have been subjected to horrific anti-Black abuse and mistreatment in ICE detention," including officers cutting hair worn in braids or locks and making racist statements.
• Detention of asylum-seeking parents has resulted in family separation.
• LGBTQ asylum seekers, including transgender people, face a serious risk of violence in detention.
• The administration has ignored a court order requiring release of medically vulnerable people from detention, a situation made worse by COVID-19.
The pandemic "just exacerbates the cruelty and the danger of jailing people," Gendelman said.
The Biden administration "has taken some positive steps to reduce the use of immigration detention (from Trump-era levels). It's not currently detaining families with minor children. It requested a reduction in detention funding, and it's taken steps to close some facilities," she said. "At the same time, it has expanded and reopened other immigration jails and continues to detain asylum seekers and separate families at the border."
At a presentation Thursday held in conjunction with the report's release, a Ugandan activist named Salma, who had been attacked and kidnapped in Uganda, where her brother was tortured and killed, said a Customs and Border Protection officer initially recommended she return home rather than spend what he said would be years in detention waiting to gain asylum.
“But I had to save my life and if I went back to my country, I don’t know how I would survive,” said Salma, who said she was chained as she went through processing. “They chained my hands, they chained my waist, they chained my legs like I was a criminal, a very, very bad criminal. That is the part that actually tormented me a lot."
Gendelman recommended a shift from reliance on detention to community-case support programs, which provide legal representation, housing and health care and are "a more humane and effective and less costly solution than immigration detention."
Such programs also "have shown enormous success in ensuring that asylum seekers appear at their hearings," Gendelman said. As a group, they are not flight risks, she said, citing an analysis of government data from 2008 to 2018 that determined that 83% of non-detained immigrants and 96% of those who had lawyers attended their immigration court hearings.
Other report recommendations include issuance of regulations with a strong presumption against detention; adoption of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which limits the use of detention; support for universal legal representation; and avoidance of the "flawed" expedited removal process.
In May, the administration could rescind Title 42, a policy adopted under Trump that allowed expulsion of asylum seekers at the Mexican border to prevent the spread of COVID but was seen by critics as a way to stop immigration. That will restore compliance with U.S. refugee law and allow asylum seekers to enter the country, said Gendelman, who nevertheless is concerned that it will result in more detention if government enforcement priorities don't change.
The Human Rights First report also takes a dim view of "so-called 'alternatives to detention' that rely on punitive and intrusive electronic surveillance," such as ankle monitors, and can "effectively place people under house arrest."
Other pro-immigrant groups have also expressed concern about Biden administration policies.
Detention Watch Network, an immigrant advocacy group that was not involved with the report, supports the lifting of Title 42 and full restoration of asylum access, but that should be done "without the use of immigration detention, including detention by another name—Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 'alternatives to detention,' " advocacy director Setareh Ghandehari said in a statement.
Sabri, now reunited with his wife in the Midwest as they pursue asylum status, said living in the United States is still his goal, despite the long detention and having to post a higher bond than many other immigrants.
"Yeah, 100%, I want to be here. This is the journey that I planned," he said. "I'll be staying the rest of my life if I get guaranteed over here."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden administration slammed for immigration detentions