New York Times Editorial
September 25, 2004
In jails and prisons across the United
States, thousands of people are detained who have never been accused
of crimes. The guards treat them like criminals, and the criminals
they bunk with often abuse them. They are held for months, sometimes
even years, but unlike the criminals, they do not know when their
sentences will end. They receive this treatment because they are
foreigners who arrived in the United States saying that they were
fleeing persecution at home.
The United States did not always lock up
the huddled masses. Until 1997, when security concerns began to
rise, asylum seekers could live like normal people while awaiting
their hearings. Today, thousands wait in detention. Some go to
immigration centers that greatly resemble prisons, but more than
half are sent to actual jails and prisons.
The Homeland Security Department, which
took over immigration matters from the Immigration and Naturalization
Service 18 months ago, says it detains only those who pose a security
threat or who intend to disappear. But there are countless cases
of asylum seekers who are detained even when they clearly pose
no risk, have friends or relatives in America who will post bond,
and are unlikely to skip out on their asylum hearings. They include
Tibetan nuns, religious minorities from Africa, an Afghan woman
persecuted by the Taliban for running a girls' school, Ukrainian
grass-roots activists and others. These people are often the most
noble in their society. They come here chasing America's promised
liberty, and they end up in chains.
The rules have become harsher since Sept.
11. An asylum seeker landing at an American border post or airport
speaks to an asylum officer, who determines whether the person
poses a security risk or has ties to the community. Those who
fail those tests are deported, and those who pass are detained.
A majority of the detainees are then paroled to await their hearings.
But the decisions of Homeland Security vary hugely by region.
The regions based in Miami, Texas and San Diego release 81 percent
of their detainees; New York releases 8 percent, and New Jersey
only 4 percent.
In addition, the United States seems to
be using harsh detention to discourage people from fleeing to
America. In the case of Haitians, this is an explicit policy.
Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that all people arriving
by boat - a vast majority of them Haitians - should be detained
because freeing them would encourage others to come. An exception
is made for the Cubans who arrive by boat. They get parole and
a green card, by law.
Decisions on how to handle each immigrant
should be based on individual circumstances, according to clear
rules that apply to all regions equally. The United States must
obviously be careful with people who come here and say they are
seeking asylum. But locking up thousands of people who pose no
risk and are accused of no crimes is expensive, unnecessary and
a betrayal of America's commitment to the persecuted.