Detention and Deportation Await Those Seeking Asylum in America

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The immigration detention boom had begun, and it would only get bigger. The number of beds in immigration jails has more than quintupled since 1996, rising from 6,280 to 34,000 in 250 facilities across the nation in 2014. Since 2006, Congress has required ICE to keep all 34,000 of those beds perpetually filled, a provision known as the bed mandate. Critics of this no-vacancy policy argue that civil immigration offenders with no criminal history have no business behind bars.

Partnering with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, Sovcik coauthored a report in 2013 about detention's psychological toll on asylum seekers. Drawing on testimony from dozens of former detainees, the report details the appalling conditions found in some detention facilities along the southern border. The findings echoed another report from 2013 by Americans for Immigrant Justice.

"The temperature in the cells is so cold that [Customs and Border Patrol] officers themselves refer to them as 'hieleras,' or iceboxes, in Spanish. Detainees' fingers and toes turn blue and their lips chap and split due to the cold. Blankets are not provided. These crowded hieleras have no mattresses, beds or chairs," the Americans for Immigrant Justice report states.

"They've signed up for a certain degree of hardship during these journeys," Sovcik says of asylum seekers in general. "But at that moment when they believe they've reached a place they can ask for help, they're handcuffed and taken into cold rooms. They have no idea what's going on. There's a certain degree of shock in that experience that adds to the intensity of their trauma."

Research has shown that the longer asylum seekers are incarcerated, the more emotionally fragile they become. A team led by Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, interviewed 70 asylum seekers detained in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for a study published in The Lancet in 2003.

"What we found were very alarmingly high levels of psychological distress among asylum seekers in detention," Keller says. "There was a clear correlation between the length of time in detention and the severity of these symptoms, including depression, sadness, and hopelessness, as well as profound symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress."

In 2009, ICE issued new parole standards: If arriving asylum seekers pass a "credible fear" interview, they can be eligible for release. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report in April 2013 concluding that ICE "continues to detain asylum seekers under inappropriate conditions in jails and jail-like facilities."

A spokesman for ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Megan Bremer, who helped organize the LIRS' pilot program, says her organization received approval from ICE before agreeing to discuss the project.

"Until there's some movement from Congress on the bed mandate, ICE really feels its hands are tied," Bremer says. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of divisive rhetoric right now and fear-mongering about who is coming into this country."

In New York and New Jersey, two women have been instrumental in securing the release of asylum seekers. The first is Sally Pillay, program director at First Friends, a nonprofit group that provides the simple but vital service of visiting immigrants who might otherwise remain isolated behind bars. Ebullient and loquacious, the 36-year-old Pillay may well have spent more time inside the detention centers than anyone except the guards and staff.

When Pillay joined First Friends in 2008, while she was earning her master's degree in social work, there was one immigration jail for the entire New York City area, housing 320 detainees. Today, five facilities hold more than 1,500 immigrants and asylum seekers on any given day.

Beyond providing moral support, Pillay helps detainees keep in touch with their families, refers them to pro bono legal services, and sometimes serves as a 24-hour on-call cab service when people are paroled.

"The facility where most asylum seekers are, it's horrible. If you go outside, you're surrounded by toxic fumes and the smell is unbearable," Pillay says. "When somebody is released, they have no transportation. [ICE] calls us and says, 'Hey, can you take this person to the train station?' It can be 10 or 11 at night."

To qualify for parole, asylum seekers are required to confirm their identities and show proof of "community ties," which, practically speaking, entails proving they have a friend or family member with a spare bedroom. It's harder than it sounds: Documents may have been lost, stolen, or confiscated, and asylum seekers seldom have local contact to rely on.

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Keegan Hamilton
Contact: Keegan Hamilton