Thursday, February 08, 2007
WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 — A bipartisan federal commission warned on Wednesday that the Bush administration, in its zeal to secure the nation’s borders and stem the tide of illegal immigrants, may be leaving asylum seekers vulnerable to deportation and harsh treatment.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which Congress asked to assess asylum regulations, found two years ago that some immigration officials were improperly processing asylum seekers for deportation. The commission, which also found that asylum seekers were often strip-searched, shackled and held in jails, called for safeguards in the system of speedy deportations known as expedited removal, to protect those fleeing persecution.
But the commission, which will issue its new findings on Thursday, says officials have failed to put into effect most of its 2005 recommendations. It says the failures come even as the Bush administration has significantly expanded efforts to detain and swiftly deport illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico without letting them make their case before an immigration judge.
“We are clearly concerned as to whether, in addition to prioritizing secure borders, the government is ensuring fair and humane treatment of legitimate asylum seekers,” said Felice D. Gaer, who is head of the commission, which was created by Congress in 1998. “We are really quite disappointed and dismayed by the lack of a response.”
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, also expressed concern about the slow pace of change. Mr. Lieberman said he planned to introduce legislation by March to require the Department of Homeland Security to adopt several of the commission’s main recommendations.
Officials from the Homeland Security Department emphasized that they had put into effect some recommendations, including naming the first senior adviser for refugee and asylum policy and updating training for immigration officers, detention workers and other personnel.
But they said many other recommendations were impractical given the challenges in trying to stop illegal immigrants from pouring into the country.
“We have taken their report seriously,” said Stewart A. Baker, an assistant secretary of homeland security. “But some of their recommendations just weren’t practical given the enormous flood of illegal immigrants that we deal with every day.”
Mr. Baker said the department looked forward to working with Mr. Lieberman and would review his measure after it had been introduced.
In its report, the commission praised the Justice Department, which oversees immigration courts, for training immigration judges on asylum law, expanding the number of legal orientation programs for detained immigrants and trying to improve immigration court decisions.
But the commission was sharply critical of the Department of Homeland Security, whose border agents and immigration officers interview asylum seekers at airports or land crossings.
Domestic security regulations require that immigration officials refer an illegal immigrant for what is known as a credible-fear interview if the immigrant indicates “an intention to apply for asylum, a fear of torture or a fear of return to his or her country.” The asylum seeker is then removed from the expedited removal process so an immigration judge can review the claim.
But the commission found no evidence that domestic security officials had taken steps to ensure that agents advised immigrants to ask for such protection or to ensure that agents did not deport immigrants who express fear of deportation.
The commission also found no indication that the Department of Homeland Security had taken steps to ensure that asylum seekers were not treated like criminals while their claims were being evaluated. Mr. Stewart said that it would be too burdensome to create a separate detention program for asylum seekers and that such a system might create incentives for people to claim that they were fleeing persecution.
Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First said the failure to address such problems promptly had “real human consequences.”
“Asylum seekers continue to be jailed in these prisonlike facilities for months and, in some cases, for years,” Ms. Acer said.
The commission also expressed concern that officials chose to expand the expedited removal process before addressing the problems in the handling of asylum seekers.