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Persecuted Often Find Prison in the United States

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By Eleanor Acer, Human Rights First's Refugee Protection Program Director

A school teacher from Burma. A monk from Tibet. A human rights advocate from Guinea. What do they have in common? They all came to the United States seeking protection from political, religious or other persecution. Instead, they were greeted with handcuffs and prison uniforms -- detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security) in jails and prison-like facilities in the United States.

They and more than 48,000 other asylum seekers have been detained by ICE in these prison-like facilities since it took over responsibility for immigration detention from the old INS in 2003. Many of these asylum seekers were deprived of the chance to even have an immigration court rule on the need for their continued detention. This and more is documented in a report issued last week by Human Rights First: U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison.

Welcoming the persecuted with handcuffs and prison uniforms is simply not consistent with this country's values or its commitments under refugee protection and human rights conventions. Neither is depriving them of basic due process safeguards.

One of our pro bono clients -- a teacher who had fled Burma after the military regime had imprisoned him for his support of democracy and human rights -- told Human Rights First, "When I was back home, I was in prison. I thought that when I got to America I'd be free, but then I was in prison again. I was surprised by that." ICE (and ultimately U.S. taxpayers) spent more than $25,000 to detain this Burmese refugee for seven months in a Texas detention facility. All in all, Human Rights First has calculated that ICE has spent more than $300 million to detain asylum seekers, even though there are more cost-effective and humane alternatives.

President Obama's new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has launched a review of the U.S. immigration detention system, and appointed Dr. Dora Schiro as a special adviser to conduct that review. In a letter to Human Rights First last week, Dr. Schiro said that she will be presenting her preliminary findings and recommendations to Secretary Napolitano shortly. During an event to mark the launch of Human Rights First's report, another Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official stated that these recommendations may be submitted to the Homeland Security Secretary within a few weeks.

It's time to fix this broken system. Human Rights First has urged the Department of Homeland Security to work with the Department of Justice to reform the U.S. system for detaining asylum seekers -- to provide immigration court review of ICE's decision to continue to detain an asylum seekers and to end this country's use of penitentiary-like facilities when it does detain asylum seekers. Please join us in asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to ensure lasting reform by revising U.S. detention regulations and policies. You can write to her through our website's action center.

Not only will these reforms save money that can be better spent elsewhere, but they will also help make sure this country lives up to its commitments to those who stand up to repression and seek refuge from persecution.