WASHINGTON – A bipartisan commission says the agency in charge of securing U.S. borders is failing to protect asylum seekers from being wrongly deported or treated like criminals.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report released Thursday that the Homeland Security Department expanded expedited removal of immigrants — against the commission's recommendation — and continues to jail asylum seekers with criminals.
The commission said few of the changes it had recommended to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have been made.
"Despite the passage of two years and a personal meeting with Secretary Chertoff and our expectation he would establish a system that both protects our borders and asylum, we are disappointed and dismayed," said Felice Gaer, the commission's chairwoman.
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at DHS, said several of the recommendations have been carried out but many "were not entirely realistic and very difficult to implement."
Asylum seekers are often detained while officials determine if their claim of persecution is credible. The commission found two years ago that some were shackled, kept in solitary confinement or strip searched.
Baker said building separate facilities only for asylum seekers and flying them to a better facility would be expensive and might serve as incentive for people to claim asylum.
The commission was required by Congress to study DHS and Justice Department asylum procedures. The 2005 study had extra significance because commission members were allowed to observe parts of the asylum screening process.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the lawmakers who asked for a follow-up to that study, said the committee's recommendations should be taken seriously. The government needs to "begin implementing policies that reflect American values and respects the dignity and traumatic past asylum seekers are escaping," he said in a statement.
Mark Hetfield, director of the original study, said the commission found two years ago that DHS was not following special procedures Congress put in place to ensure legitimate asylum seekers weren't turned away as the country tightened immigration laws. Little has changed, he said.
"There's no mechanism to be sure DHS is following its own rules when it comes to asylum seekers. How do we know it's following its own rules when it comes to security?" said Hetfield, senior vice president of policy and programs at Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The commission had recommended that DHS fix problems in the expedited removal process before expanding it. But DHS expanded the accelerated deportations amid growing calls for crackdowns on illegal immigration.
Under expedited removal, screeners at airports and other ports of entry can immediately send foreigners back to their country of origin if they decide the person does not have a credible fear of persecution.
"Expedited removal is probably one of the most important tools for controlling immigration that we have in our arsenal," Baker said. "It is something that has allowed us to get on top of or ahead of illegal immigration in the last two years."
DHS did create a senior adviser on refugee and asylum policy as recommended by the commission. But commission members said he hasn't been given enough authority or resources to carry out what they recommended. Igor Timofeyev, an attorney, was named to the position.
The commission praised some of the efforts by the Justice Department to carry out its recommendations, particularly efforts to provide money to train immigration judges.
The commission said it had trouble assessing some aspects of the asylum process because DHS would not provide it with requested information.