UNCHR Conference: “Reaffirming Protection, Strengthening Asylum in the United States” | LIRS
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UNCHR Conference: “Reaffirming Protection, Strengthening Asylum in the United States”

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Laura Griffin is the Program Associate for Access to Justice at LIRS.

Sixty years ago the United States was at the center of the world stage in the creation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.  Yesterday we honored this important step in the formation of our refugee protection system at the “Reaffirming Protection, Strengthening Asylum in the Unites States” conference hosted by the UN High Commission for Refugees, Human Rights First and Georgetown Law School.  This was more than just a celebration, however. It was an opportunity for us to pause, look at our system and ask what we could do better.

UNCHR Conference: “Reaffirming Protection, Strengthening Asylum in the Unites States”
Director for Access to Justice, Leslie Velez, at the UNCHR Conference: “Reaffirming Protection, Strengthening Asylum in the Unites States”

The truth is that during our long journey of welcoming refugees, the United States has faltered at times, and is still faltering today.  We have a remarkable history of serving as a beacon for those fleeing persecution, but we need to create systems that better reflect our values of freedom and human dignity.   It was with this goal that leaders in government, nonprofits and the UN came together yesterday to discuss current challenges to refugee protection.  Speakers included the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and LIRS’s very own Leslie Velez.

Before the panel began, we watched a short film clip about an asylee whom was sitting a few tables away from me. This man had fled Equatorial Guinea after being tortured and imprisoned because of his ethnicity and culture.  He thought he won the lottery when he was able to obtain a two year Visa to the United States.  Yet when he told the immigration officer at the port of entry that he was afraid to return home, he was thrown into jail-like immigration detention.  This story set the tone for discussing the challenges that come with detaining refugees, putting front and center the fact that this all comes down to people, individuals whose lives are fundamentally altered by how our nation chooses to welcome them.

Every day the government holds around 33,400 migrants in immigration detention while their cases are being decided. This massive detention system comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, families, immigrants and vulnerable populations.  Asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries are surprised to find themselves imprisoned, often without having committed a crime, in a country known for freedom and due process.  Especially for those who have already suffered so much, being held in prisons or prison like facilities can be deeply re-traumatizing and harmful.  LIRS and other leaders in the field believe that this is unnecessary and financially wasteful.

“Since 1996, mandatory detention laws have unnecessarily forced detention of arriving asylum seekers. Especially after 9/11, the attitude was to detain now and ask whether it was necessary later,” Leslie told the audience.  “These laws and attitudes make no economic, moral or policy sense.  Why force detention of large categories of individuals instead of relying on expert immigration officials’ judgment of the necessity of detention in individual cases?”

There is hope, however.  There are alternatives to detention which are effective, humane and significantly cheaper.  LIRS and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. are working in partnership to create pilots of community supported, robust case management alternatives.  As of fiscal year 2011, Congress had appropriate over $72 million for alternatives to detention.  Unfortunately, this money has been spent almost exclusively on alternate forms of custody like ankle bracelets, which for many is unnecessary, costly and degrading.   We envision a future in which each person is assessed to determine what is the least restrictive means necessary to make sure he or she shows up to court and is not a risk to society.  Case managers would then leverage already existing community resources to make sure that the former detainee could overcome barriers to following up with the case.  Due to research, advocacy and story sharing, the government programs are finally evolving into better directions. More and more, concerned people are rising to the challenge to provide post release services.  Leslie concluded her comments on the panel by saying that this is “a very exciting glimmer of hope for the future of how we treat asylum seekers and other migrants.”

Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy
Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy

Today, LIRS has published a report, “Unlocking Liberty,” calling for a way forward into respecting the rule of law while protecting the human rights of immigrants. The report explores key policy reforms that can relieve the suffering of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are unnecessarily detained every year.

“There is a fundamental difference between prudence and excessive precaution,” said Leslie Velez. “And that difference is felt in the lives interrupted, the families separated, and the unnecessary psychological harm done to those who have experienced significant trauma.”

“We need to look at migrants as individuals,” continues Velez. “Once we can shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to an individualized case-by-case determination of who should be detained, we will quickly see how often detention is disproportionate to our needs and harmful to the lives of migrants.”

This 60 year anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention is an opportunity to both pay homage to the United States’ long history of leadership protecting refugees and to challenge our nation to fulfill its full moral and legal potential.  As we look to the future we can imagine a better welcome for refugees and immigrations, and a more perfect America.

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