WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senior Senators Wednesday introduced legislation to ensure humane treatment for asylum seekers and other detained immigrants.
The Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act, S. 3114, is sponsored by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Senator Sam Brownback, R-Ks., Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who also chairs the Immigration Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. The legislation stems from the Senators’ longstanding advocacy on behalf of asylum-seekers, refugees, and detained immigrants.
Lieberman said: “In recent years, large increases in the number of detained immigrants have exacerbated the mistreatment of asylum seekers and other detainees. In the time it takes to determine if detainees have the right to live in the United States, we must ensure that they are housed in safe and humane conditions where they receive appropriate medical care. We must also implement fair procedures to determine if detention is necessary, and increase funding for secure alternatives to detention.”
Brownback said: “I am proud to join my colleagues in supporting the Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act. This bill will help ensure that individuals who are detained for civil immigration violations and individuals who are fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the United States are treated fairly and with basic human dignity.”
A Kennedy spokeswoman said: “The detention system is out of control. Everyday, thousands of immigrants and refugees, including women, children and the elderly, are being held indiscriminately and indifferently in hundreds of prisons across the country. We need to restore basic fairness and humanity to this irrational system and use our tax dollars to hold only those who truly represent a threat to our communities. Congress can’t continue to let this Administration make a mockery of the rule of law.”
Hagel said: “It is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that individuals seeking refuge or asylum in our country are detained in conditions consistent with our values. This legislation would implement safeguards to correct faulty asylum procedures and improve detention conditions, while increasing the efficiency of our immigration detention system.”
The Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act would:
• Mandate improved detention conditions, including prompt medical care that complies with accreditation requirements, unobstructed access to legal counsel, limits on the use of solitary confinement and other punitive treatment, and special standards for families and for victims of persecution and torture;
•Substantially enhance the rights of asylum seekers and others to have their detentions promptly reviewed by an immigration judge, and to be considered for release if they pose no risk to public safety;
• Enhance alternatives to detention such as supervised release programs;
• Require the recording of interviews with detained asylum seekers and other quality assurance measures to ensure they are not erroneously returned to countries where they fear persecution;
• Establish an Office of Detention Oversight within the Department of Homeland Security to audit and investigate detention facilities’ compliance with standards and to report to Congress; and
•Mandate the reporting and investigation of all deaths that occur in detention facilities.
In 2005, a Congressionally-mandated report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom described how victims of oppression were funneled into maximum security detention facilities through faulty policies and procedures. Since then, Senator Lieberman has pressed Department of Homeland Security officials to improve the treatment of asylum seekers.
In 2006 Lieberman and Brownback offered the Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act as an amendment to an immigration reform bill, and last June the Senate passed the provisions as part of broader immigration reform legislation. The legislation was never enacted. Lieberman’s attempts over the past year to negotiate with DHS for implementation of administrative reforms have been unsuccessful.
The Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act is supported by a broad coalition of faith-based and asylum and immigration advocacy groups, including: the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Jewish Committee, the Asian American Justice Center, the Center for Community Change, the Episcopal Church, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Jesuit Refugee Service USA, the Jubilee Campaign USA, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the National Immigration Forum, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the United Methodist Church, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and World Relief.
“The bill will ensure due process is afforded at the border so that vulnerable populations are not turned away,” the groups wrote in a letter to Senators. “It will improve conditions of detention and increase oversight, requiring deaths to be reported and investigated. It will also promote cost-saving alternatives to detention for asylum seekers and others seeking protection in the United States who pose no threat to our communities.”