The Biden administration has unnecessarily—and often unlawfully—jailed tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, many of whom have suffered “severe” physical and psychological abuse and discrimination, according to a report published Thursday.
“We came here to a country of law, but I found my brothers in tears… I don’t know what to say. I did not expect this.”
The Human Rights First (HRF) report—entitled “I’m a Prisoner Here”—offers a harrowing look inside the world’s largest immigration detention system, one which the Biden administration uses to jail people legally seeking refugee protection.
HRF interviewed scores of asylum-seekers and collected information on hundreds of others jailed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), many of whom reported “sexual, physical, and verbal abuse, punitive use of solitary confinement, denials of basic necessities, and medical neglect,” among other mistreatment.
“Jailing asylum-seekers is inhumane, unnecessary, and wasteful,” the report states. “Moreover, the mass detention of asylum-seekers violates U.S. legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and its Protocol. In its guidelines on the use of detention, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that ‘asylum-seekers should not be detained’ and that ‘the use of detention is, in many instances, contrary to the norms and principles of international law.'”
The publication notes that President Joe Biden “pledged to eliminate prolonged detention, end the use of for-profit immigration detention centers, and uphold the legal right to seek asylum. Yet, to date, DHS under the Biden administration has detained tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, jailing many in newly opened or expanded facilities or in remote areas where they often face insurmountable barriers to fairly presenting their asylum claims.”
According to the report, asylum-seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) include torture survivors, political dissidents, student organizers, human rights activists, LGBTQ+ people, and survivors of gender-based violence.
The paper claims the Biden administration “is using flawed ‘enforcement priorities’ that continue the failed approach of past administrations by targeting people requesting protection in the United States” and jailing them for prolonged periods instead of “allowing them to pursue their cases while living safely with their U.S. families and communities.”
“The Biden administration must alter course, stop jailing asylum-seekers and treating them as enforcement ‘priorities,’ [and] use its legal authority to release them.”
One Venezuelan fleeing death threats for his political activities told HRF: “I’m a prisoner here. I would rather die in my country than be jailed here.”
An asylum-seeker from Benin said: “We came here to a country of law, but I found my brothers in tears… I don’t know what to say. I did not expect this.”
Under the administration’s enforcement priorities guidance, “DHS has separated families seeking refuge at the border, illegally subjected children to detention in adult facilities, endangered many LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers, and placed people with serious medical conditions at heightened risk during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.”
The report notes that “in October 2021, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker died of complications from AIDS and Covid-19 after five months in detention.”
HRF also found racial disparities in the length of asylum-seekers’ detention. Overall, migrants tracked by HRF were jailed for an average of 3.7 months. People from majority-Black countries, however, spent an average of 27% longer behind bars. The report details racist abuse by jailers, including taunts about whipping detainees and their families like slaves and lynching them.
While welcoming the administration’s plan to end the deportation of migrants under Title 42—a public health provision first invoked by then-President Donald Trump under pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic—the report warns that “DHS’ continued use of the flawed enforcement priorities to jail asylum-seekers as more are finally able to access U.S. asylum processes threatens to further entrench and expand the mass detention of people seeking refugee protection.”
“As the Biden administration ends the illegal Title 42 expulsion policy, it should not perpetuate the cruel and unnecessary use of detention against people seeking refuge in this country,” said Rebecca Gendelman, an associate attorney for refugee protection research at HRF and author of the report. “The government has legal authority to parole asylum-seekers and other immigrants. Its choice to detain them instead endangers lives, separates families, inflicts trauma, wastes resources, and punishes people for exercising their legal right to request asylum.”
The report concludes that “the Biden administration must alter course, stop jailing asylum-seekers and treating them as enforcement ‘priorities,’ use its legal authority to release them, and dismantle the unfixable U.S. immigration detention system that violates human rights law.”
“In doing so,” says HRF, “the administration should shift to proven case support programs run by community-based organizations and not to so-called ‘alternatives to detention’ that rely on punitive and intrusive electronic surveillance or effectively place asylum-seekers under house arrest.”
The HRF report comes six months after a Human Rights Watch publication detailed how asylum-seekers have faced years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by U.S. Border Patrol agents.