Report Finds U.S. Often Greets Asylum Seekers with Prison, not Protection

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Brenda Bowser Soder
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Report Finds U.S. Often Greets Asylum Seekers with Prison, not Protection

Human Rights First Calls on the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, and Congress, to Put Safeguards on Use of Detention and Improve Conditions

WASHINGTON - Since 2003, U.S. immigration authorities have spent more than $300
million to detain over 48,000 asylum seekers in U.S. prisons and
prison-like facilities - in a system that lacks basic due process
safeguards and is inconsistent with America's longstanding commitment
to protect those who flee from persecution, according to a report
released today by a leading human rights organization.

"Refugees who seek protection in this country are greeted with
handcuffs and prison uniforms, and they are treated like prisoners in
correctional facilities," said Eleanor Acer, the director of Human
Rights First's Refugee Protection Program. "New leadership at the
Departments of Homeland Security and Justice should seize the
opportunity to end this practice and implement some long overdue
reforms, like ensuring that an asylum seeker can't be detained for
months or years without having an immigration court consider the need
for continued detention."  

In its report, U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, Human Rights First also found:

  • ICE has increased its use of penitentiary-like facilities by 62% in
    recent years - and asylum seekers, who are often brought in handcuffs
    and sometimes shackles to these facilities, are detained for months and
    sometimes years in actual jails or facilities that are operated like
  • Some of the largest facilities are located far from legal
    representation and the immigration courts - at some of these facilities
    detained asylum seekers see U.S. immigration judges only on television
    sets, since their immigration court asylum hearings are often conducted
    by video.  
  • While it costs ICE about $95 a day to detain an asylum
    seeker, alternatives to detention cost between $10 and $14 a day, and
    releasing on parole an asylum seeker who satisfies the release criteria
    and poses no threat to the community has no daily cost.  
  • ICE release policies for asylum seekers have become more
    restrictive in recent years, and parole rates have dropped sharply -
    leaving some asylum seekers detained for months or years even though
    they met the release criteria and presented no risk to the public.   

"We interviewed victims of political oppression, religious
persecution, and ethnic violence from Burundi, Burma, Guinea, Iraq,
Tibet and elsewhere. They were detained by ICE in U.S. prisons or
prison-like conditions in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and
Virginia, often for  months and sometimes years before they were
granted asylum by the United States," said Jessica Chicco, an attorney
with Human Rights First.     

Based on its findings, Human Rights First today made the following
key recommendations to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the
Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress:  

  • Review of Detention: All asylum seekers should have the chance to
    have their continued detention reviewed by an immigration court, as
    other immigration detainees do.  
  • Penal Conditions:  The United States should stop using jails and
    facilities run like jails to detain asylum seekers.  Instead, asylum
    seekers who are no threat to the community should be released on parole
    or supervision; when asylum seekers are detained, they should be held
    at facilities that are not modeled on criminal correctional facilities,
    and where they are not handcuffed, are allowed to wear their own
    clothes and have freedom of movement within the facility.      
  • Remote Facilities: ICE should stop using jails and detention
    facilities located in remote areas that are far from legal
    representation resources, immigration courts, or an adequate pool of
    medical staff. 

To read U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers:  Seeking Protection,
Finding Prison, including Human Rights First's complete set of
recommendations, detailed accounts of asylum seekers who have been
detained in U.S. facilities, visit

To view an executive summary for this report, visit

To read the Department of Homeland Security's letter to Human Rights First in response to a draft of this report, click


Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.

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