Bush Proposes Detention for Iraqi Asylum Seekers


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Amid throngs of wandering cops, this jittery city counts the hours until the attack begins. This is the second day of a standoff between security forces and a lone farmer who in a protest at agricultural prices drove his tractor into a pond on the capital’s Mall and threatened to blow himself up.

And today marks the beginning of Bush’s crackdown on immigrants. The president’s proposed detention of Iraqis and others seeking political asylum will involve “tens of thousands,” according to the ACLU. Under the administration’s new Operation Liberty Shield, asylum seekers from Iraq and 33 other countries will be detained until their cases have been decided. As it now stands, anyone seeking asylum must go through a hearing to show they have a “credible fear.” The asylum seeker has the burden of proving to the INS that they are not a threat to the U.S. Under the new rule, they’ll go to jail awaiting the final outcome of their case.

“We’re going to do to the people of the Arab and Muslim world what we’ve done to the Haitians,” Timothy Edgar, the ACLU legislative counsel in Washington, told the Voice yesterday, explaining that under this policy of mandatory detention, asylum seekers would be imprisoned without individualized hearings. “We believe that imprisoning people of the Arab and Muslim world without hearing violates principles of due process.”

What does detention for asylum seekers mean? Take a look at Australia’s Woomera Detention Center, where people seeking political asylum are held for as long as two years. A doctor there reported last year that people try to kill or hurt themselves daily. On one night three men—a Palestinian, an Iranian, and an Afghan along with a 16-year-old boy—tried to hang themselves. Two hundred people had gone on a hunger strike, some of them sewing their lips closed. “We have no hope, we see no future,” a letter from one of the asylum seekers said, “We are ready to die.”

How long would asylum seekers be detained under Bush’s plan? For the duration of the processing of their case, which “could take years,” Edgar said. The policy drives a wedge between the U.S. and the Arab world, and the brutish injustice of it is clear. “A woman from Afghanistan facing persecution on account of her gender . . . would be mandatorily imprisoned under this policy. And she would be occupying a place in prison that could be given to someone who poses a real threat,” Edgar claims. The INS has been trying to process claims within six months, but has found this deadline hard to meet. Further, it is extremely difficult to work effectively with an attorney when you’re imprisoned. “There are significant restrictions on contact with attorneys if you’re in detention. Also you can’t earn money to live on or to pay for lawyers, which is another serious problem for asylum seekers.”

Out of more than 58,000 people who sought entry into the U.S. last year, 577 people from 34 countries, including 348 from Iraq, asked for asylum.