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Religious Leaders Visit Immigration Detention Center, Sign Statement to May 3 Hearing in D.C.

April 30, 2001, NEW YORK CITY – Religious leaders, including several experienced as prison chaplains, emerged from a tour of an immigration detention center in a warehouse district near JFK Airport today and expressed shock that people seeking political asylum in the United States are held in "worse than prison" conditions.

They spent two hours in the winding corridors of the windowless, 200-bed brick and concrete block building, run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The center holds only non-criminals, all claiming to be fleeing persecution in their homelands.

The group of 22, including 18 religious leaders, aides to three Senators and a representative of a foundation helping fund pro bono legal services for detained asylum seekers, peered through glass at detainees dressed in orange jumpsuits, locked in 12- to 40-bed "dormitories" and stark, solitary "segregation" cells.

And they interviewed a detainee from the Democratic Republic of Congo – a slight, soft-spoken girl who said she was 15 years old and in her fourth month at the detention center. The INS insists she’s at least 18 years old, based on a dental x-ray taken upon her arrival in the United States.

Sucking on a finger, the girl said she was on her way to Canada to rejoin her mother when she was arrested in transit at JFK Airport in New York City and taken to the detention center. "I just want to get out of here and be with my mother," she said through an interpreter.

"I was shocked at what I saw," said the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, among participants in the tour, which was organized by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in collaboration with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.; Church World Service; Episcopal Migration Ministries; Jesuit Refugee Service; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights; NCC and United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Edgar said he had served a one-year chaplaincy at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., and observed, "Imprisoned criminals have more freedom, access and opportunity" than these survivors of torture and other new immigrants fleeing persecution in their home countries.

"I’ve spent 11 years as a prison chaplain and what I saw today is a prison," said Imam Salihou Djabi of the Timbucktu Interfaith Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. "People who commit crimes are put in places like that. But these people haven’t committed any crime. They’re running from conditions we know about – in places like Rwanda and Sierra Leone."

"What I saw today was un-American," declared the Venerable Michael S. Kendall, Archdeacon for Mission of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He was unfazed by the center administrator’s assertions that the facility is appropriate for non-criminal asylum seekers.

The center’s detainees are locked in their dormitories 22-23 hours a day. In each, a uniformed guard keeps watch as they sleep, read, watch television, use the open-stall toilets, shower, take their meals and play board games to pass the time. Detainees struggle to pull together documentation for their asylum cases. To phone out, they must purchase expensive phone cards.

Detainees are allowed 60-90 minutes of recreation a day, in cramped "indoor" and –weather permitting -- "outdoor" recreation rooms. The latter is a small courtyard with high walls and a metal link roof. A volleyball net and basketball hoop share the space with the center’s generator.

"If it looks like a jail and acts like a jail, it’s a jail," Archdeacon Kendall said. "In the name of God, let’s open our arms and treat these people as human beings."

Under 1996 immigration "reforms," asylum seekers apprehended at U.S. ports of entry must convince a low-level immigration officer that they have a "credible fear of persecution" if returned home. Some, unsuccessful, are deported immediately. The rest are taken, shackled, to INS detention centers and county jails while they await decisions on their claims -- for weeks, months, even years.

Once credible fear is established, INS district officials have the discretion to release asylum seekers on parole, but in the New York district, that rarely happens, said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, Jr., President, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Of the 20,000 immigrants in INS detention on any given day in the United States, an estimated 3,000 are asylum seekers, Deffenbaugh said. In the New York City area, two detention centers – the one near JFK Airport and another in Elizabeth, N.J., near Newark Airport – hold 500 asylum seekers. total

In a message to be shared at a May 3 U.S. Senate Immigration Subcommittee hearing on U.S. asylum policy, the religious leaders called on the U.S. Congress and Administration "to take immediate steps to correct the policies enacted into law in 1996 that are causing such severe human suffering."

These policies "seriously undermine our nation’s commitment to refugee protection," they said. "We are particularly concerned about the impact of expedited removal and detention on adults and children seeking asylum here….As a just and generous country that has traditionally stood for the protection of human rights around the world, we can and must do better."

At a post-tour briefing, the group heard from Mekabou Fofana, a high school student in Manhattan, who also spoke first-hand about his experiences as a child detainee. As a child he fled Liberia, where his father was murdered and his family threatened. He was only 16 when he arrived at JFK Airport, where he was beaten by immigration police, landing him in the hospital.

The INS then sent him to the Wackenhut Detention Center and later to other adult county jails, where he remained behind bars for a year and a half until he won his asylum claim, with help from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The INS could have paroled him to his family members in New York City, but did not.


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