"There's growing recognition from ICE that maybe detention is not appropriate for all of these folks," says Megan Bremer, a staff attorney at LIRS. Early successes aside, Bremer cautions that the arrangement is only temporary and currently receives zero government funding. "A lot of programs locally are running on a deficit. If it wasn't for all the volunteers providing time and services, the program would not be in existence."
Beyond the humanitarian concerns, the cost of detaining asylum seekers and other nonviolent immigrants creates an enormous burden for American taxpayers. The Department of Homeland Security budget for "custody operations" in the 2014 fiscal year is $1.84 billion. According to DHS' own estimates, if the agency used electronic ankle monitoring and other less-expensive alternatives instead of detention, the government could save more than $1.44 billion annually: a 78 percent reduction in costs.
Yet every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants like Mohamed — who committed no crime beyond seeking a new lease on his life — are locked up for weeks, months, and even years. And if they are sent home, deportation can be tantamount to a death sentence.
The two most famous asylum seekers in recent history are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, but those cases are hardly typical. The ex-National Security Agency contractor fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow after supplying journalists with a trove of information about controversial U.S. spy tactics; the WikiLeaks co-founder sought refuge in an Ecuadorian embassy in London amid fears he'd be extradited to Sweden to face sexual-assault charges. Perhaps the only thing these men have in common with the average asylum seeker in the United States is that they are stuck in legal limbo waiting to resolve their claims.
Unlike Snowden and Assange, the vast majority of asylum seekers are anonymous. In 2012, according to the United Nations, 45 million people worldwide forcibly were displaced owing to persecution and conflict. Though the majority became refugees, roughly 1 million sought political asylum. (The only difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is location: Refugees typically remain near their homeland when they initiate the process, while asylum seekers arrive at their desired destination without prior authorization.)
Several ancient societies, including the Greeks, Hebrews, and Egyptians, respected the right of asylum, but the framework that exists today was established in 1951 to deal with millions of displaced people in the aftermath of World War II. As a party to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agreed to "not return refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened and where they are more likely than not to be tortured." In the old days, asylum seekers rarely were detained.
With the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, everything changed. Later that year, 60 Minutes broadcast a report emphasizing that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the suspected mastermind behind the attack, had applied for asylum. The sound bite that stuck was provided by a representative from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant group: "Every single person on the planet Earth, if he gets into this country, can stay indefinitely by saying two magic words: 'political asylum.'"
In truth, Abdel Rahman had entered the United States on a tourist visa and received a green card despite his status on a terrorist watch list. He didn't apply for asylum until years later, and his claim ultimately was rejected. But the damage was done. According to a 1998 report on asylum by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, the 60 Minutes segment "created the impression that few, if any, claims of asylum in the United States are legitimate." In the aftermath, federal agencies adopted more stringent standards for identification of asylum seekers (typically requiring a passport, birth certificate, or other form of ID) and imposed a minimum 180-day waiting period before issuing a work permit.
Unsatisfied with these reforms and reacting to a broader influx of undocumented immigrants, Congress passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in 1996. The legislation set a one-year deadline for immigrants to apply for asylum and created an "expedited removal" process to swiftly deport anybody who arrives at a port of entry without proper documentation. For the first time in history, arriving asylum seekers were subject to mandatory detention.
"That became somewhat of a game-changer," says Annie Sovcik, director of the Washington office of the Center for Victims of Torture. "From there, you started to see an overall growth in the detention system itself, both in the number of people detained on a daily and annual basis, as well as in the different categories of people held."