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The World | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Rights Groups Blast Policy to Detain Asylum Seekers

March 19, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Human rights and immigrant advocates Tuesday condemned a new policy from the Department of Homeland Security that calls for extended detention of individuals from mainly Muslim countries who are seeking political asylum in the United States.

Amnesty International called the policy "Orwellian."

The detention order is part of Operation Liberty Shield, a series of domestic security measures announced Monday by the Department of Homeland Security intended to make it harder for terrorists to strike here in reprisal for any U.S. attack on Iraq.

"Operation Liberty Shield denies liberty to the victims of human rights abuse who come to our country seeking freedom," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "To name an operation that denies liberty to asylum seekers 'Liberty Shield' is Orwellian."

The Bush administration said it would stand by the policy, which took effect Tuesday. Only sketchy details of the order have been published, and an official said the list of 30 or so countries is classified.

"When we are not in a war footing, it is possible to be more liberal, but now that we've got the possibility of a terrorist attack, it's only prudent to be more cautious," said William Strassberger, a spokesman for Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's unfortunate that some people truly seeking asylum may be detained, but I think it's a small price to pay."

But Muslim civil rights groups, religious organizations and a senior lawmaker also joined in the criticism.

"Programs that single out particular population groups -- based on their religion, ethnicity or national origin -- are wrong, shortsighted and only provide the illusion of security," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Targeting asylum seekers who are fleeing human rights abuses betrays our tradition as a protector of the oppressed."

Like other Western countries, the United States has a tradition of granting asylum to victims of political, religious, racial and other forms of persecution. Previously, most asylum seekers were granted temporary admission to the country if an immigration examiner determined that their assertions of persecution could be valid.

The new policy also led to mistaken reports that the government intended to round up thousands of people who are now in the country and have already applied for asylum.

Strassberger said the detention policy would apply to asylum seekers who, starting Tuesday, arrive at an airport or other border crossing. It could be rescinded after hostilities end.

Asylum seekers who have already filed applications and are awaiting a ruling will not be arrested, he emphasized. Neither will people who are already in the U.S. and voluntarily present themselves to authorities to claim asylum, he said.

Those who are detained could face confinement for six months or more. They must remain in custody until an immigration judge can decide their case, said Strassberger. They would be kept at immigration detention centers or other facilities.

Officials did not know how many people could be detained. Had the order been in force last year, it would have affected about 600 people, more than half of them Iraqis, said Strassberger.

"At the same time our president is announcing liberty and freedom for the Iraqi people, we're going to be jailing them here," said Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Young said she had obtained a list of some of the places affected and they include the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Libya, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Oman, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Strassberger declined to comment.

At a news conference Tuesday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the list would include countries that sympathize with Al Qaeda or in which the terror network is active.

"The purpose behind the temporary detention is fairly straightforward," Ridge said. "We want to make absolutely certain, during this period of time, you are who you say you are."

Critics pointed out that Al Qaeda has also operated in European countries, but none were on Young's list.

And they acknowledged that asylum seekers should receive closer scrutiny in threatening times, but noted that the decision to detain a refugee should be made on a case-by-case basis.

"This is really a sort of blanket detention," said Kevin Appleby, who directs refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It unfairly harms individuals who are no threat to our country, and there is no individualized determination as to whether they have a valid asylum claim."

Strassberger said the mere fact that a person is detained would not affect the ultimate ruling on whether he or she deserves political asylum.

"These people will still be allowed to pursue their asylum claims," he said. "It is well and good to come out and oppose the policy, but we would be derelict as an agency if we did not do what we could to keep our country safe."

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Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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