Refugees accepted for resettlement overseas are welcomed into the United States with open arms and a package of benefits. But those who flee to the U.S. on their own and request asylum from a “well-founded fear of persecution” once they get here can find themselves taken immediately to jail. These sometimes illegal entrants are do-it-yourself refugees. Those who have shown a “credible fear” of persecution in their homeland can be allowed to remain free until their immigration hearings. But if there’s concern that they won’t show up for those hearings, or that they present a threat to the community, the government detains them. Sometimes, critics charge, asylum seekers are locked up for questionable political reasons.
That’s precisely what is happening to some 165 asylum seekers from Haiti who have been imprisoned in Miami since the grounding of their ship on December 3, advocates claim. A lawsuit filed by advocates in March charges racist treatment by the Bush administration, which changed its detention policy on Haitian asylum seekers as an object lesson for other Haitians who might seek refuge from the impoverished and unstable nation, which is racked by human rights abuses. U.S. Attorneys said in court filings that the blanket detention of Haitians was intended “to discourage further risk-taking and to avoid an immigration crisis of the magnitude which existed during the early 1980s and 1990s with the Haitian and Cuban mass migrations.”
UNHCR objected to this reasoning in a mid-April statement, asserting that using detention as a deterrent is “contrary to international standards” and amounts to “arbitrary detention.” What’s more, the lawsuit charges, the detainees are being held in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, and their proceedings are being so rushed that they can’t find lawyers or prepare their claims.
“If the government was truly concerned about saving lives, it would make sure that these Haitians had a full and fair opportunity to make their case for asylum,” says Cheryl Little, director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is spearheading the lawsuit. “There is no refugee processing taking place in Haiti,” she adds, “so the only way Haitians fleeing persecution can attempt to save their lives is to attempt to make it to shore here and apply for asylum. At the very least, we should be making sure their due-process rights are protected.”
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