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Report reveals ‘inhuman’ detention of asylum seekers under Biden administration

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Aerial view of an improvised camp of asylum seekers at El Chaparral border crossing near the Mexico-United States border in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on November 8, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The Biden administration has imprisoned tens of thousands of asylum seekers in US prisons where they suffer lengthy detentions, severe physical and psychological harm and other abuses, a rights group says in a new report.

The report titled - “I’m a prisoner here’: Biden administration policies lock up asylum seekers” - reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unnecessarily detains tens of thousands of people seeking asylum while they could be staying with their family or in supportive circumstances.

Human Rights First group, an international human rights organization, says in the report published on Thursday that jailing asylum seekers is “inhumane, unnecessary, and wasteful” and has needlessly subjected people to severe physical and psychological harm, medical neglect and discrimination, racism, a lack of legal and language resources, and other harms.

The report found that since President Joe Biden took office in January of last year, asylum seekers were held in detention centers for 3.7 months on average. This included those who passed their so-called credible fear interviews, during which an asylum seeker is expected to explain to an immigration officer why returning to their country of origin could put them in danger.

“As the administration restores compliance with US refugee law at the southern US border and ends Trump policy that illegally prevented people from seeking asylum, it should not substitute one rights-violating policy for another,” said the report, based on information on more than 200 asylum seekers and immigrants who have been detained and interviews with 76 of them.

More than 1.8 million expulsions have been conducted under Title 42, with asylum seekers being sent back to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador or their country of origin, according to government figures.

Since March 2020, US authorities along the border with Mexico have used the policy to summarily expel migrants more than 1,163,000 times without allowing them to see an immigration judge or an asylum officer, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures show.

Title 42 has been described by rights watchdogs as an unlawful and xenophobic Trump-era policy that weaponized public health to prevent vulnerable migrants from seeking asylum in the US.

The administration’s detention policy has “inflicted enormous trauma and suffering,” said the report’s author, Rebecca Gendelman, a Human Rights First attorney focusing on refugee protection research.

Gendelman recommended a shift from reliance on detention to community-case support programs, which provide legal representation, housing and health care and are “a more humane and effective and less costly solution than immigration detention.”

NEW: @humanrights1st report, "I'm a Prisoner Here," documents the jailing of tens of thousands of asylum seekers under the Biden administration in dangerous and cruel conditions.

— Rebecca Gendelman (@becky_gendelman) April 21, 2022

The Human Rights First report, based on information collected from February 2021 to April 2022, alleges a number of government transgressions during Biden’s tenure in the White House.

The report found that asylum seekers from Black-majority countries were detained on average for nearly 4.3 months – 27 percent longer than those from other countries and reported discriminatory release denials and racist statements.

The report says the health of people with serious medical conditions has been endangered by detention. It cites the case of a Venezuelan man who was incarcerated for five months before dying of complications from AIDS, pneumonia, respiratory and kidney failure and COVID-19.

The report calls on the Biden administration "to alter course, stop jailing asylum seekers and treating them as enforcement “priorities,” use its legal authority to release them, and dismantle the unfixable US immigration detention system that violates human rights law.”

In doing so, the administration should shift to proven case support programs run by community-based organizations and not to so-called “alternatives to detention” that rely on punitive and intrusive electronic surveillance or effectively place asylum seekers under house arrest. 

Other report recommendations include issuance of regulations with a strong presumption against detention; adoption of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which limits the use of detention; support for universal legal representation; and avoidance of the “flawed” expedited removal process.

The Biden administration has come under frequent criticism from immigrant advocates and progressive Democratic leaders who have urged the president to do more to uphold his responsibility towards asylum seekers.

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