Jailed Refugees In Liberty's Shadow

Posted: July 02, 1986

NEW YORK — Tomorrow, a four-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty will begin. A mile away 250 illegal immigrants will languish in the Varick Street detention facility.

Throughout the country about 5,000 illegal immigrants, in addition to another 2,000 Cubans, will be imprisoned in detention centers and penitentiaries throughout the United States. A large proportion of these people are political asylum applicants who have fled repressive regimes in Haiti, Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Poland, Guatemala, South African, Ethiopia and elsewhere.

Most have experienced tragedy in their homelands as well as en route to the United States. They are imprisoned because they have arrived here without valid travel documents. It is usually difficult for persons fleeing political persecution to secure proper travel documents from the persecuting authorities; they leave any way they can.

From 1892 until the early 1950s, an estimated 17 million immigrants came to the United States through the Ellis Island port of entry. In 1954, the facility was closed and the policy of detaining immigrants was suspended for 27 years. In the spring of 1981, however, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reinstated the policy of detaining refugees.

The administration's new detention policy is calculated not only to deter refugees from applying for asylum once they have crossed our border, but also to discourage refugees from coming here in the first place - hardly a policy that comports with the upcoming Statue of Liberty celebration.

In March and April, I interviewed a number of asylum applicants, either currently in or recently released from detention, about the conditions that they fled and how they fared in U.S. detention.

One, a Salvadoran who had been held in El Centro, Calif., fled her home in

December 1985 after her father and brother were murdered and mutilated, her sister was raped and her home and other family property were destroyed. She left her husband and two children behind in El Salvador; one of the children was only 3 weeks old on the date of her departure. Upon entering the United States, she was immediately incarcerated, despite the fact that she was hemorrhaging severely as a result of her recent delivery and was so weak that she fainted in court shortly after her arrival.

Another, a black South African shepherd, fled his country in July 1985. He arrived in New York in November 1985 after his father had been burned to death. He nearly suffered the same fate when South African authorities locked him in his cottage and set it on fire.

He is now imprisoned in the Varick Street detention facility and has not been outside since he was picked up at the airport last November. He suffers

from insomnia and various other physical disorders as a result of his incarceration.

"After 25 years of my suffering," he told me, "I end up in an American jail. I thought I would find freedom as a refugee in this country, but my suffering continues. I came here to hide from persecution, but now I experience a new type of persecution . . . This is beyond my limit. Here my heart beats fast and my body shakes. Being here is like a bad dream."

The administration's detention policy is wholly inconsistent with the spirit of the Liberty celebration. It is also inconsistent with the law. Under the Refugee Act of 1980 refugees are entitled to protection from forced return to a country where they face persecution. By detaining refugees, the administration subverts the intent of the act by creating a situation where refugees are so miserable in the United States that they decide to take their chances with the authorities in their home countries.

Detention is also simply inhumane. Overcrowding is a common problem, and the boredom is excruciating and debilitating. Detainees fear that they will never be released.

Many suffer the humiliation of routine strip searches, being handcuffed in public, and living completely under the control of INS guards. Some applicants have spent over two years in such facilities while their applications for asylum are processed. Over the years, these conditions have resulted in hunger strikes, giving up the right either to apply for asylum or to appeal a negative decision and suicide. Such is the darker side of U.S. policy toward admitting immigrants to the land of liberty.

As we celebrate Liberty Weekend, we should rededicate ourselves to ending the policy of prolonged detention and returning to our prior policy of detaining refugees only when it is necessaery to protect the U.S. national security of pubic safety, or to effect deportation.

Emma Lazarus' words, inscribed on the base of the statue, says to all exiles "I lift my lamp beside the golden door." It is our responsibility to make sure that door is open.

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