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Detentions shine spotlight on U.S. policies that critics say is harshest system in the world for asylum seekers

By Miriam Raftery

Hear our KNSJ radio coverage of the rally, aired on August 3, 2015:  /sites/eastcountymagazine.org/files/2016/April/OtayIraqis-FinalShow.mp3?641

Hear our August 7, 2015 radio broadcast on KNSJ  with Mark Arabo, a national spokesman for Iraqi-American Chaldeans, and Amir Moshe, a former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who has two cousins detained inside the Otay facility.  Listen Now: /sites/eastcountymagazine.org/files/2016/April/8-4-15%20MOSHE%20-%20MARK%20-%20CHALDEAN%20INTERVIEW.mp3?722


August 2, 2015 (El Cajon) – Over three dozen Iraqi Chaldean Christians from El Cajon held a prayer vigil and protest outside the prison walls at the Homeland Security detention facility at Otay Mesa on Thursday, calling for the release of their family members and friends who fled ISIS only to be imprisoned when they arrived in America seeking asylum.  Over two dozen have been held in indefinite detention for over four months, some up to seven months, with no hearing date set for release. 

The detainees include a woman who pleaded for release to see her mother, who died Thursday at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

Father Noel from St. Peter’s Cathedral in El Cajon told East County Magazine that all of the detained Christians have family in El Cajon who vouch for their identities and are willing to take them in. 

The situation is far different than for Iraqi Chaldeans who came here a decade ago seeking asylum.  “Ten years ago, they were held just a couple of days and they were not in a jail,” he told East County Magazine.  “Today, they are fleeing ISIS," escaping genocide in their homeland, only to arrive and be imprisoned in the U.S.

No refugees are being processed in Iraq, leaving those fleeing for their lives to avoid being killed or enslaved by Islamic State or ISIS forces to obtain fake identifications in order to escape and reach America.  But Father Noel says “all of them” have relatives here so verifying identities can be done.  He adds that Chaldeans who come here “want to be good citizens" and many who came here a decade ago are now lawyers, teachers, or other productive members of society.

Mark Arabo, a national spokesperson for Iraqi-Chaldeans, denounced the indefinite detention and called on members of Congress to take action to free the detainees.

“We need to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he told East County Magazine. “That’s not what America stands for,” he said, gesturing toward the barbed wire atop the formidable prison run by the privately-owned Corrections Corporation of America.  “The statue of liberty is what we stand for – not a barbed wall.”

Arabo said he has spoken to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the State Department and the White House, with no help offered.  “They are saying they don’t have enough resources to process these cases,” he said, calling the detentions “shameful.”

He noted that one woman at the rally had come here to be with her mother, who died the same day as the rally at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. “She had been begging to be let out,” he said of the daughter.  Another man present has three children who are being detained here.

Around 40,000 Iraqi Chaldean Christians, descendants of the ancient Babylonians from Mesopotamia, are currently stranded as refugees in Turkey with "no hope," Arabo said. "These people here, they have run away from ISIS, they have gone through multiple countries. But the poeple from Immigration (ICE) , they don't care."

Father Noel led prayers and a second priest read from the Bible.  “I was a stranger and you took me in…I was in prison and you came to me.”  The religious leaders asked God to help those who are detained after already suffering so much. 

Aamer Moshi (photo, right, with Father Noel and Mark Arabo)  told ECM that he has “a couple of cousins and friends I know from back home” who are in the detention facility, some held for up to seven months.  He goes to visit them every weekend, he says, adding that they are receiving adequate food and have access to essentials such as showers “but it is still a prison.”

He adds, “To us, it’s a crime to keep them so long.” He faults America for creating conditions in Iraq that gave rise to the ISIS takeover of Chaldean communities.  “ Who destroyed our country? America.”  Now he hopes America will free his family and friends and allow them to start a new life here in East County.

CCA guards told ECM that CCA cannot comment on the issues raised.  They referred us to Lauren Mack at Homeland Security.  ECM has contacted Mack to ask why the detainees have been held so long and when bond hearings will be set. We have also contacted Congressman Duncan Hunter and Congresswoman Susan Davis to request comment.

Back in 2012, during our  prior inquiry into conditions for asylum seekers detained in our region, Mack blamed delays on backlogged immigration courts.

In May 2012, a federal court in San Diego ruled that “an arriving asylum seeker may not be detained for a prolonged period of time unless the government shows at a detention hearing (called a bond hearing) that he or she is a risk of flight or danger to the community,” Sean Riordan, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in May 2012 in an e-mail sent to the San Diego Refugee Forum. 

He wrote that some asylum seekers had been detained “for years without so much as a fair hearing” but that in the case of the ACLU’s client, Miguel Angel Fernandez-Crespo, the judge found that “prolonged detention without a bond hearing would be constitutionally suspect” and that “the court’s logic suggests that arriving asylum seekers are generally entitled to a bond hearing when they have been detained for more than six months.”  Fernandez-Crespo was released shortly after the ruling, after a court found he did not pose a danger to the community or national security.

Amnesty International, in a reported titled “Treated as Criminals: Arbitrary detention of asylum speakers”  has stated that while seeking asylum is not a crime, “an increasing number of people, having been forced to flee their homes to escape persecution, are being placed behind bars in on arrival in the USA. They are held in conditions that are sometimes inhuman and degrading. Aslyum-seekers in the US are liable to be stripped, shackled, and sometimes verbally or physically abused. Some are confined with convicted criminals….but unlike criminals—are excluded from bail and have no idea when they will be released.”

Such  U.S. policies and treatment resulting in indefinite detention of those seeking asylum “violate international human rights standards,” Amnesty International charged in the report.  The group called on U.S. authorities to assure that asylum-seekers are detained only when a legitimate reason is demonstrated and then only for a minimal period.  “Children should neither be separated from their families nor detained,” the report added. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Executive Committee (EXCOM) says detention of asylum seekers should normally be avoided and is allowed only to verify identity, claims on which asylum is based, deal with fraudulent or missing documents, and protect national security. 

Sean Riordan with the American Civil Liberties Union told ECM during a 2012 investigation of asylum seekers’ treatment by the U.S. that there are alternatives, such as “supervised and electronically monitored release and the posting of bonds as people do in the criminal context.” Pilot studies showed electronic monitoring was effective and that asylum seekers were highly motivited to show up for hearings, he told us.  He added that 100% of those seeking asylum in the U.S. are now being thrown into detention facilities.  He told of one Sri Lankan asylum seeker who was detained four years by the U.S. before the ACLU got a court order for his release. “A year or more is quite common,” he said in2012.

That’s stark contrast to how asylum seekers are treated in other countries. South Africa, for instance, has had an influx of asylum seekers in the past but courts held that detention had to be “minimal and in the most lenient possible conditions, most comfortable conditions possible to achieve security. On the contrary, we have a prison  model.”

Gloria Nafziger, refugee coordinator with Amnesty International Canada, told us in those 2012 interviews that Canada as a rule does “not normally detain people” arriving as asylum seekers. Most are processed quickly and released, given work permits while awaiting hearings, she said, “to prevent people from being part of an underground economy and being exploited.” Charitable organizations in Canada teach the asylum seekers English and about 40 to 45% had their asylum requests granted at that time.

She added that asylum seekers don’t want to go underground and hide. “They have every incentive to cooperate and be processed through the system.” 

What about a person who does pose a security threat? “The last thing in the world they would do is make an asylum claim,” Nafziger said, “because everything about you is entered into a system and you can be found out.” She called concerns that asylum seekers pose security risks “unfounded.

According to a public records request we sent Homeland Security in 2012, it cost about $112 a day per detainee to keep them in a federal detention center. By contrast, Amnesty International’s detention report, “Jailed Without Justice” says effective alternatives cost only about #12 a day.  So the contention that it’s too costly to process the asylum seekers due to backlogged immigration courts is dubious.

Ahmed Sahid with Somali Famliy Services told ECM back in 2012 that he suspected a profit motive behind the long detentions.  “CCA, Corrections Corporation of America, this is a privately run for-profit corporation. The more people they have, the more time they have, the more money they make,” he told us. He added that asylum seekers here were put in with criminals.

Dory Beatrice, who worked with asylum seekers released from the Otay facility, said people in the Otay detention facility were traumatized to hear gunshots from a firing range next door, shots that were loudly audible during the Chaldean prayer vigil Thursday. 

“No one told them what it was,” she said of Somali detainees,  “or that they weren’t going to be attacked.”

Beatrice confirmed to us that CCA was dumping those who won asylum claims late at night downtown or near San Ysidro, “so they get paid for another day.”

Sahid added that those who won asylum were being left with no services, neglected by government at all levels, leaving it up to the community to help out.

Beatrice said that asylees who get lawyers and psychological evaluations are 98% successful at getting asylum, while those denied such access had only 7% success rate—and those unsuccessful are deported, potentially facing life-threatening risks if sent home.

Loretta Nelms Reyes said asylees released faced dangers on the streets, particularly girls who may become victims anew. “This is what outrages me,” she said.  “The U.S. has treaty obligations to protect this kind of refugee…these are political refugees, granted status by Homeland Security.” Some have been victims of torture and all have overcome enormous obstacles and faced danger in their journey to America, she concluded.

Unlike some asylum seekers who have come here knowing no one, alone in a strange land, however, the Iraqi Chaldean Christians imprisoned indefinitely at the Otay facility have family here – and seek only to be reunited with their loved ones after surviving horrific conditions.

Why the federal government has failed to take steps to expedite such reunification in cases where family and religious leaders are willing to vouch for and help those seeking asylum here, then, remains an unfathomable mystery. 

Readers who find these indefinite detentions of asylum seekers, even those with family here,  disturbing can contact their members of Congress and the White House to ask them to take action.

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