The New York Times is carrying this article about the findings of a bi-partisan federal commission charged with investigating the conditions of asylum seekers in the United States. Their findings are at once depressing and unsurprising for anyone who has followed some of the asylum cases that have come up in the U.S. during the past few years. More and more, asylum seekers who have already been the victims of torturer and oppression in their homeland are being treated like criminals when they set foot on U.S. soil.
Unsurprisingly, many asylum seekers are unable to procure valid travel papers from the tyrannical governments that they are fleeing. The sad irony is that these days it’s likely easier to enter the country as a well-documented agent of a brutal regime than as a refugee fleeing one. While a claim of asylum likely lands you in prison until your case winds its way through the reorganized immigration system, a passport from an oppressive, un-democratic terrorist-sponsoring state (like say. . . Saudi Arabia?) gets your rubber-stamped through customs.
Last year, the Web helped bring attention to the plight of a Tibetan nun named Sonam who was jailed for months while a Homeland Security appeal pended, despite the fact that an earlier ruling had held her to be eligible for asylum. Coverage of the story by the Washington Post and the Buddhist News Network (now The Buddhist Channel) helped eventually gain Sonam her freedom, motivating Buddhists and human rights activists in the United States to contact members of Congress regarding her detention.
The new report makes clear what many human rights activists have already warned: detention of asylum seekers has become the norm for the Department of Homeland Security, instead of the exception. Homeland Security representatives are increasingly filing appeals against asylum seekers whose asylum has been granted by the court, and requesting that the asylum seeker remain jailed while the appeal pends. Policies like this represent a needless burden on the judicial system, and a needless added trauma for individuals who have often already endured great suffering and uncertainty.
Are we really safer with the Department of Homeland Security is locking up oppressed nuns? What happens to the United States when it ceases to be the destination of choice for people seeking freedom and new opportunities? What happens to people in need of asylum when one more door is closed to them?
There are real consequences to these policies. The current administration needs to spend more time thinking about the consequences of its choices, and less time trying to look busy.