Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, immigrants seeking to enter the United States have faced higher hurdles. This includes asylum seekers, and some have been treated in an especially painful and discriminatory manner. Among them are Haitians currently detained in south Florida. In their desperation to escape politically motivated violence in their own country, close to 200 have reached our shores with well-founded fears about what could befall them if they remained in Haiti. But instead of being released into the community as their claims are being processed—the common procedure for refugees from other countries—they remain in detention, which is simply another word for imprisonment. This harsh policy on the part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been adopted in a deliberate effort to deter other Haitians from attempting to come here.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Migration and Refugee Policy Office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told America that the I.N.S. resorts to deterrence-based measures of this kind whenever Haiti’s political unrest leads to increased attempts at escape by people who feel their lives are at risk. Interdiction at sea results in almost immediate repatriation, and the same is true of those arriving by air. Men who make it to Florida by boat are being held for the most part in the I.N.S.’s Krome Processing Service Center near Miami. Women are generally placed at the Turner Guilford Correctional Center in Miami itself—a maximum security jail. Conditions at the latter have been criticized by human rights groups like Amnesty International, which has received reports of verbal abuse, numerous and lengthy lockdowns and inadequate medical care and food.
Mr. Appleby rightly calls the indefinite detention of the Haitian asylum seekers immoral, because a majority of them are “people who have already been subjected to a credible-fear interview and who have passed it—in other words, they’ve been determined to have a valid asylum claim and are awaiting their final adjudication.” Of special concern is the issue of discrimination based on race and national origin. Cubans, for example, are not treated this way. If they are interdicted at sea, they are sent back; but if they do reach our shores seeking asylum, they can remain and not be detained while their asylum claims are being processed. As Mr. Appleby put it, “It’s always the Haitians.” A deterrence-oriented policy of this kind is clearly racist, a crude and unjust warning to Haitians of what may await them on their arrival here.
The spark that touched off the current emphasis on indefinite detention began when a boat carrying 167 Haitians reached south Florida last Dec. 3. A handful of the detainees have been released, but advocates see this move as affecting too few to signal any change in policy. This past March a group of immigration attorneys and advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Haitian asylum seekers who remain in detention at Krome and the Turner Guilford Correctional Center.
In addition to contending that the detainees are being held in substandard conditions, the suit also states that the process for adjudicating the Haitians’ asylum claims has been deliberately accelerated; this makes it more difficult for pro-bono attorneys to assist them. The suit points out, moreover, that under its previous policy, the I.N.S. released Haitian asylum seekers within a relatively short time after their arrival. In responding to the suit, the I.N.S. did not deny that deterrence is, in fact, the purpose of its post-December actions.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has sharply criticized the detention of asylum seekers: they are not criminals, and they have already suffered significant hardship. The Catholic Church, too, has spoken out forcefully on the matter. Late in March Thomas G. Wenski, the auxiliary bishop of Miami who is chairman of the Committee on Migration of the U.S.C.C.B., wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking that he intervene with the I.N.S. to effect the release of the Haitian asylum seekers. Specifically, he points out that “since asylum seekers do not present a danger to the community or a risk of flight, these individuals should be released to family or supportive community members, such as Catholic Charities, during the pendency of the immigration proceedings.” As human rights groups have noted too, he added in his letter that “selective treatment of one group of nationals raises serious questions of fairness and discrimination based on national origin.”
Discrimination in our government’s policies is unconscionable, especially when directed toward asylum seekers with well-founded fears of persecution. These unjustly detained women and men should be released.