WASHINGTON — Many people who come to the United States seeking political asylum are treated like criminals, in some cases held in prisons and jails, a federal commission said Tuesday.
Some asylum seekers are shackled, kept in solitary confinement or strip-searched, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report required by Congress. The conditions are unnecessarily severe, said Craig Haney, a University of California at Santa Cruz expert on the effects of incarceration who helped prepare the report.
The government detains people to ensure they will show up for their asylum hearings, among other reasons. The facilities employ practices similar to those used in traditional prisons and jails, the report said.
It also found that the system, run by the Department of Homeland Security, had wide variation in who was detained and who was granted asylum. The outcomes differed based on where people landed in the United States, their country of origin, which judge heard their case and whether they had a lawyer.
All asylum seekers are supposed to be detained for up to 48 hours while immigrations officials weigh whether they have a legitimate claim for seeking refuge, said Victor X. Cerda, acting director of the department's Office of Detention and Removal. That policy was put in place to make sure terrorists did not use the immigration system to get into the country, he said.
"Historically, in the asylum process, we have seen incidents of fraud and abuse, and at times the system has been used by people with terrorism intentions," Cerda said.
In New Orleans, authorities detained all but one of the 191 people who were awaiting an immigration judge's decision on asylum between October 2002 and September 2003, the report said. By contrast, in Harlingen, Texas, 620 of 635 asylum seekers were released in the same period.
Cubans and Iraqis had the highest rate of success at remaining in this country -- 82% and 61%, respectively. People from India, Colombia, Haiti, Guyana and El Salvador fared worst, 15% or less, over the past five years, the report said.