Policy on Asylum-Seekers Faulted

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a report that sharply criticizes federal immigration authorities for rounding up asylum-seekers at the border, detaining them for months in prisonlike facilities and quickly dispatching them back to the countries they fled.

Thursday's report by the bipartisan panel was a follow-up to one two years ago that reported similar findings about detention and expedited removal. It said the Department of Homeland Security and two of its agencies -- the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- did not act on its recommendations and made little effort to help asylum-seekers.

In more than half of arrests, immigration officials did not advise asylum-seekers to ask for protection if they were afraid of returning home, even though they are required to do so, the report said. Sworn statements were often not verbatim but were used against asylum-seekers when they appeared before immigration judges. Asylum-seekers have a right to review their sworn statements to correct errors but were rarely given the chance, the report said.

"We're distressed that we gave the Department of Homeland Security some very good information two years ago and they've done virtually nothing to address the problem," said Mark Hetfield, a former researcher at the federal commission who recently joined the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. "Homeland Security is not even following its own procedures. As a result, asylum-seekers are being mistreated."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the homeland security committee, pledged to introduce legislation that would force officials to follow procedures. In a statement Thursday, he and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) praised the report as detailed and thorough.

"The commission's timely report exposes the flaws and inconsistencies in the expedited removal process," the senators said. "We urge members of Congress to act on the commission's findings and the shameful abuses of the current system, and reject any proposals that would make it even more difficult for persons fleeing human rights abuses to seek safe haven in the United States."

The commission's report includes recommendations from two years ago and a report card that gives failing grades to the Border Patrol for not implementing them. The recommendations called on immigration officials to have testers verify that procedures are followed, to make sure that sworn statements are verbatim before immigration hearings and to not jail law-abiding asylum-seekers.

Last year, a three-member panel of immigration judges in San Diego ordered the release of a Sri Lankan asylum-seeker who had been detained since 2001 because the government said it had secret information that linked him to the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group. The decision was among the first to challenge the Bush administration's assertion that it may hold suspects indefinitely on terrorism charges.

In recent weeks, Homeland Security officials have come under fire for interpreting anti-terrorism laws in a way that hurts people seeking asylum and refugee status in the United States. People who were forced to aid terrorist groups, and were even abused in some cases, have been labeled as sympathizers and deported. The agency has since started reviewing individual cases and issuing waivers.

Homeland Security officials say they are following strict anti-terrorism laws created under the USA Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, which place the burden on immigrants to prove that they were jailed or otherwise persecuted in their country of origin.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company