Panel: Asylum Seekers Not Treated Well

Many people who come to the United States seeking political asylum (search) are treated like criminals, in some cases held in prisons and jails, a federal commission said Tuesday.

Some asylum seekers are shackled, kept in solitary confinement or strip-searched, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (search) said in a report required by Congress. The conditions are unnecessarily severe, said Craig Haney, a University of California at Santa Cruz expert on the psychological effects of incarceration who helped prepare the report.

The government detains people to ensure they will show up for their asylum hearings, among other reasons. The practice the facilities employ track those used in traditional prisons and jails, the report said.

It also found that the system, run by the Department of Homeland Security (search), has wide variation in who is detained and who is granted asylum. The outcomes differed based on where people landed in the United States, their country of origin, which immigration judge heard their case and whether they had a lawyer.

All asylum seekers are supposed to be detained for up to 48 hours while immigrations officials weigh whether they have a legitimate claim for seeking refuge, said Victor Cerda, acting director of the department's Office of Detention and Removal. That policy was put in place to make sure terrorists do not use the immigration system to get into the country, he said.

"Historically, in the asylum process, we have seen incidents of fraud and abuse, and at times the system has been used by people with terrorism intentions," Cerda said.

He said the report reveals "the challenge we face to maintain the history of being a nation of asylum seekers, but at the same time highlights the challenge of balancing that with our national security issues."

In New Orleans, authorities detained all but one of the 191 people who were awaiting an immigration judge's decision on asylum between October 2002 and September 2003, the report said. By contrast, in Harlingen, Texas, 620 of 635 asylum seekers were released in the same period. Six thousand people were held nationwide.

Cubans and Iraqis had the highest rate of success remaining in this country — 82 percent and 61 percent, respectively. People from India, Colombia, Haiti, Guyana and El Salvador fared worst, 15 percent or less, over the past five years, the report said.

In some places, a quarter of those with a lawyer were granted asylum compared with 2 percent who had no representation, it said.

The commission recommended that DHS create a refugee coordinator and take other steps to make the process more consistent, allow those who pose no security risk to be released and ease conditions for detainees, who say they are coming to the United States to escape persecution.

The panel examined the system Congress created to handle asylum cases after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Called expedited removal, screeners at airports and other ports of entry question arriving aliens who lack proper documentation, sending most back to their country immediately. Only those who express a "credible fear" of return are considered for asylum.

The report said the number of asylum seekers has dropped sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The commission said more study is needed to determine why, but said anecdotal evidence suggests that U.S. authorities are working with foreign governments to prevent people without proper paperwork from boarding planes in the first place.