World Refugee Day: After Fleeing Persecution At Home, Asylum Seekers Face Prison-Like Conditions In U.S.

In the dim light Jean-Pierre could make out his name on the guard's list. He was second in line to be killed.

"Welcome to your last day," the guard said.

Jean-Pierre expected to die. For the past few months, plainclothes policemen had been showing up at his house, asking his family for his whereabouts. He'd been followed. Not even twenty-three-years-old, he'd already been jailed four times for organizing lawyers to intervene in human rights abuses.

Rattled, Jean-Pierre backed off the human rights issues and focused on raising HIV-AIDS awareness in Guinea, the West African country where he was born and raised. But, because he worked with Canadian and American NGOs and attended conferences all over Africa and Europe, he was developing a reputation among some in the Guinean government as a rabble-rouser and a spy.

Friends had warned Jean-Pierre that he was in danger. Still, when someone knocked on his door in the middle of the night and asked for a light, Jean-Pierre opened the lock. That was the end. He was seized, hooded, and stuffed into the back of a car. Forty-eight hours later he was looking at his name on a death list. The last thing on Jean-Pierre's mind was immigrating to the United States.

Nevertheless, less than a week later Jean-Pierre was standing in line at U.S. immigration at Newark International Airport. The Guinean government decided at the last minute that Jean-Pierre would be too much trouble to kill--they didn't want to add any fuel to the civil unrest--and gave his family a day to rustle up the money for a plane ticket out of the country.

When Jean-Pierre's turn came at the immigration window, the officer glanced at his green Guinean passport and his business visa. Both were legit. Jean-Pierre had been planning to come to the U.S. to see some colleagues anyway, and a month ago he'd secured the visa from the consulate. The passport was stamped with his recent trips to South Africa, Spain, France.
It's likely the immigration officer would have waved him through. But Jean-Pierre, hoping to extend his stay in the U.S. a few months beyond what the business visa allowed, said, "I'm here to seek political asylum."

The officer blinked. He didn't seem to expect a well-dressed, well-spoken young man from an Air France flight to be asking for amnesty.

And Jean-Pierre certainly didn't expect what happened next. He was approached by security officers, escorted to the other side of the airport--where the flights from developing nations usually came in--and left to spend the night on the floor. The next morning, Christmas Day, he was shackled to another asylum seeker and taken to a detention center in suburban New Jersey. He wouldn't speak to his immigration officer for another two weeks; he wouldn't see the sun until March.

Like the bulk of people who come to the United States seeking asylum or without correct documentation, Jean-Pierre spent the first phase of his new life as a prisoner. He shared a room with dozens of other people, all of whom used a toilet and shower in full view of everyone else. He wore a jumpsuit. Except for emergencies, the only medicine available were two pills: a red one, and one to make you sleep. When Jean-Pierre took the latter for the muscle aches he developed from the rock-hard beds, he had to be shaken awake in the morning.

The prison-like conditions (or, in some cases, literal prisons) of the detention centers are only part of the issue surrounding would-be asylum-seekers, said Annie Sovcik, a lawyer with the nonprofit Human Rights First. There is also the question of due process.

Asylum-seekers are presumed guilty until proven innocent. If they aren't extradited on arrival, they're sent immediately to a detention facility without an opportunity to appeal their case before a judge. Sometimes it's weeks, if not months, until they see a lawyer. The government carries no burden to prove an asylee should remain detained.

In a report to Congress, the Congressional Research Center summarizes the controversy around detention centers. While Human Rights First and other advocacy organizations would characterize U.S. policy on asylum seekers as a failure to live up to an obligation to help people who need it, proponents of the policy suggest that terrorists could use a more lax system to gain entrance into the U.S. A less-strict policy could also be abused by those who are merely seeking an alternative channel to immigration, or to those who are only persecuted in their countries because they themselves are persecutors.

To address some of these concerns, Sovcik of Human Rights First proposes a system in which asylum-seekers are immediately given an opportunity to establish their identities and claim to asylum.

Some seekers might be undesirable, she acknowledges. Still, those who can make a credible case for amnesty ought to have an opportunity to do so without suffering prison conditions--conditions that are often comparable to the environments from which they were fleeing.

As it turned out, Jean-Pierre was one of the luckier ones. He spent only four-and-a-half months in the detention center, working in the kitchen, occasionally playing volleyball in an enclosed gym at the discretion of the guards, and never once having to be sent to the SHU--the Solitary Housing Unit. He even had the occasional visitor from a nonprofit that offered social support to a population that otherwise has no resources to psychological counseling--despite the fact that many of them have experienced trauma. Jean-Pierre talked with one of these "first friends" through a glass screen during visiting hours. Had he been able to afford the $1/minute cards, he might even have been able to call her on the phone...if he'd had access to a phone.

But, perhaps Jean-Pierre was luckiest because he spoke English. Most fellow detainees couldn't even communicate basic information with their jailors, let alone charm them as Jean-Pierre did.
On his day in court, a pro bono lawyer from the Human Rights First helped secure Jean-Pierre temporary refugee status, and he was free to go. In a few years, he'll have an opportunity to apply for permanent residency in the U.S.

Jean-Pierre, however, is not so sure he'll seek it. "I don't understand the U.S.," he said, shaking his head. "They want to show other countries they accept refugees, but while they're helping some people, they're suppressing others."