HIAS: Lieberman-Brownback Amendment Should Be Included in Immigration Reform

Posted on Wed, Apr 05, 2006 at 14:40 pm

The “Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act” Would Honor U.S. History of Welcoming Asylum Seekers Fleeing Persecution

(Washington, D.C.)- The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) calls on Congress as it considers critical immigration reform legislation in the coming days to use this unique opportunity to fix longstanding problems with U.S. asylum detention policies and practices. Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) have proposed a solution that would ensure that individuals fleeing persecution and seeking safe haven in the U.S. would be treated humanely and with dignity upon reaching our shores.

The “Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act” (Amendment #3253) includes the following important reforms to the current system:

• Require the construction of less prison-like detention facilities for asylum seekers and other migrants that allow for minimal restriction on movement; access to social, psychological, and medical services; contact visits with legal representatives and family members; increased privacy; and separation from criminal inmates
• Mandate the construction of detention facilities that permit families with children to stay together
• Create a program under which asylum seekers and others may be released under enhanced supervision
• Require that procedures governing the transfer of a detainee take into account the detainee's access to legal representatives and the proximity of the facility to the location of their legal proceedings
• Train personnel to understand and work with asylum seekers, victims of torture or other trauma, and other vulnerable populations and to ensure that personnel understand that many detainees have no criminal records and are being held for civil violations
• Expand Legal Orientation Programs, which consist of live group presentations made by non-governmental agencies that inform immigration detainees of their rights and educate them about U.S. immigration and asylum laws prior to their first hearing before an immigration judge
• Establish an “Office of Detention Oversight” in the Department of Homeland Security to inspect detention facilities and review and investigate complaints by detainees.

In addition, the Lieberman-Brownback Amendment would require that interviews of asylum seekers arriving at a US airport or at a border port of entry be videotaped to ensure that procedures designed to ensure that asylum seekers can express a fear of persecution are followed. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has found that inspectors often fail to record asylum seekers’ statement properly and fail to read it back before the sworn statement is signed. Immigration judges rely heavily on these sworn statements when deciding whether to grant or deny asylum, and supposed contradictions between the initial statement and later claims are a frequent justification for denying asylum.

As Senators Lieberman and Brownback note, the United States has long recognized that asylum seekers often must flee their persecutors with false documents, or no documents at all. The second person in United States history to receive honorary citizenship by Act of Congress was Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, in gratitude for his issuance of more than 20,000 false Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews to assist them in fleeing the Holocaust.

Although the world has changed since Raoul Wallenberg heroically rescued thousands of Jews and security concerns are paramount, HIAS is unwavering in its support of the right of asylum seekers to be treated with dignity, fairness, and respect as they seek safe haven. Despite increased security concerns, millions of people across the globe suffer intolerable oppression and persecution and have no choice but to flee. “An asylum seeker should never be treated like a criminal,” says Gideon Aronoff, President and CEO of HIAS. “There is no reason why the United States can’t create alternatives for asylum seekers that include release or, at a minimum, keep families together and keep asylum seekers out of prisons that are meant for criminals.”

HIAS has long supported the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s recommendations that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security develop procedures to ensure that a release decision is taken as early as possible in the asylum process and that once an asylum seeker has established credible fear, identity and community ties, and that the asylum seeker is not subject to any possible bar to asylum involving violence or threat to national security, the asylum seeker should be released from detention.

Despite Commission’s recommendations, which were first made over a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security continues to detain the vast majority of non-criminal asylum seekers, as well as other non-criminal migrants, under inappropriate and potentially harmful conditions in jails and jail-like facilities where asylum seekers are treated like criminals. While it is within the authority of the Department of Homeland Security to take the necessary steps to fix these problems, it has not even begun to do so. The Lieberman-Brownback Amendment is critical in making these changes happen.