THE BLOG
06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Jekyll and Hyde of U.S. Policies toward Haitians

By Annie Sovcik - Advocacy Counsel, Human Rights First

The U.S. response to the catastrophic January 12th earthquake that shook Haiti, leaving a quarter of a million dead and another million homeless, has once again revealed the split personality that has long defined U.S. policies toward Haitians.

On the one hand, earlier this week in New York at the United Nations "International Donors' Conference Towards a New Future for Haiti," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $1.15 billion in reconstruction aid to Haiti, stating that "as fellow human beings, we respond from a position of conscience and morality to help those who, but for the grace of God, we could be in a world where natural disasters are often unpredictable, inflicting great costs."

Meanwhile, in South Florida, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continued to detain 30 earthquake survivors from Haiti. As revealed yesterday in a shocking article by The New York Times, these 30 individuals were all waved onto a plane by Marines during the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake. They arrived in the United States on January 19th where they were immediately apprehended for lacking proper visas. Despite the fact that Homeland Security halted all deportations to Haiti starting January 13th, these 30 earthquake survivors languished in a handful of Florida detention centers and jails for over two months. None have criminal convictions and many have relatives in the United States - meaning a place to go and people to care for them. All have survived unimaginable trauma.

This shocking story reflects problems chronic throughout the U.S. immigration detention system. In an April 2009 report, Human Rights First found that the U.S. immigration detention system lacks the basic due process safeguards to ensure that immigrants and asylum seekers are not unnecessarily held in detention for prolonged periods of time.

The United States is responding "from a position of conscience and morality" in providing several hundred million dollars worth of emergency assistance to Haiti, pledging another $1.15 billion to help the Haitian people rebuild their country, temporarily halting deportations to Haiti, and allowing Haitians who were living in the United States prior to January 12, 2010 to be eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Meanwhile, the United States just spent over $215,000 detaining these 30 highly traumatized survivors of the same catastrophe. ICE told The New York Times that there were 35 additional Haitians who arrived after January 12th being held in U.S. immigration detention centers around the country.

Disturbing comments from ICE spokesman, Brian P. Hale, seemed to imply that the detention of these Haitians is being used to deter people from leaving the island. Hale is quoted in the New York Times as stating, "[W]e clearly articulated that those who traveled to the U.S. illegally after Jan. 12 may be arrested, detained and placed in removal proceedings." Under international human rights standards, detention should be used only as a last resort - and be based on an assessment of the necessity of detention in the individual case, and not on some goal of deterrence.

The United States has had a long and dismal history of using discriminatory detention against Haitians. In 2002, Human Rights First filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Federal Court for the 11th Circuit explaining why discriminatory and deterrence-based detention policies directed at Haitians are inappropriate under human rights law. Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to learn from past mistakes not resort to such practices.

Unfortunately we're not there yet. Our recent report details how those arriving at a U.S. airport or border point are regularly handcuffed, transported in shackles, and detained in jails or jail-like facilities where they are forced to wear prison uniforms, are guarded by officers in prison attire, visit with families and friends through glass barriers, and have essentially no freedom of movement within the facility. These so called "arriving aliens" - which include arriving asylum seekers - are mandatorily detained upon arrival with inadequate procedural safeguards. In fact, arriving aliens are not even given access to immigration court custody hearings, a basic due process safeguard available to most other detained immigrants that, if in place, would help protect arriving aliens from being unnecessarily detained for months or years.

Late last night, the New York Times reported that ICE finally released the 30 Haitians profiled in yesterday's article, as well as 10 of the other detained Haitian earthquake survivors. While this is welcome news, the fact that it takes an article in a major newspaper to trigger ICE to make a decision it should have made months ago shows how broken and lacking in meaningful standards the immigration detention system is. To address the underlying problems that lead to unnecessary and sometimes prolonged detention, Human Rights First urges ICE - as well as members of Congress and officials in the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice - to adopt basic due process safeguards that ensure detention decisions are based on an assessment of individual factors and subject to prompt court review.

Human Rights First has an open petition to the Department of Homeland Security urging better treatment of asylum seekers - those fleeing persecution or trauma should not be thrown in jail.