Last month a series of shocking photos were leaked showing undocumented children packed into Federal detention facilities. The photos were a disturbing reminder of just how broken our current immigration system is, and how little attention is being paid to those in need.
There is no doubt our immigration system needs reform. As a practicing immigration attorney, I can attest to how confusing and contradictory our current immigration laws can be. The politics of comprehensive immigration reform can be just as daunting, yet there must be common ground which we can all agree on. To start, we need to find practical solutions to address the global refugee epidemic, while treating those who flee violence and warfare with dignity and compassion.
Having come to the United States as a refugee, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to transition into a new society. According to UN statistics, the number of refugees around the world has hit a 19-year high, with more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide.
How does the U.S. decide how many refugees we’ll let in? The President consults with Congress in order to set an overall refugee admission ceiling for each fiscal year. This ceiling is not a firm commitment as to the number of actual applications approved, but a flexible target that is often not met. For example the refugee ceiling for 2012 was set at 76,000 but only 58,238 refugees were actually admitted. That is almost 18,000 unfilled spots. Each of those spots represents a refugee;
Despite the existing global crisis, the U.S. set its 2014 refugee ceiling at 70,000 — 6,000 fewer than 2012. We cannot leave women and children in such miserable conditions when we have the means to help. There must be a concerted effort to not only meet the refugee ceiling in its entirety, but to increase it for 2015 to do what we can to help.
Another important step is to put an end to the one year deadline for asylum applicants. Individuals fleeing persecution often deal with trauma, mistrust and language barriers. The current one year deadline undermines the efficiency of the asylum process, forcing immigration judges to review credible cases that were not filed within the one year deadline.
Lastly, it is time we ended the costly and dehumanizing detention of refugees and immigrants. Recently I took on a pro-bono case of a young woman from Ghana fleeing gender based persecution. After a long and dangerous journey, she was incarcerated in medium security prison amongst the general population for 7 months, because she did not have the money to pay for a lawyer. I took her case through the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and was able to have her released within a matter of weeks.
American history has long been defined by the concept of accepting the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Few Americans are aware that the United States maintains the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world, detaining more than 400,000 people each year. This includes a controversial “detention bed quota” to keep an average of 34,000 detainees in ICE custody; recent research has shown that nearly half of immigrants detained had no criminal convictions, not even traffic violations. Almost half of these individuals were ultimately allowed to return to American society, but not before spending months in detention, disrupting families, and costing tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars.
There are alternatives to the current system. According to testimony by ICE officials before Congress, alternative detention programs have had compliance rates of 96 percent with court-ordered appearances.
Each of the suggestions I’ve put forward are practical steps which address a global need, treat asylees and immigrants with dignity, and save taxpayer dollars. These steps would not require a massive increase in budgetary requirements, nor are they as daunting as passing comprehensive immigration reform.
I believe that it is time for those of us in the Bay Area to push for change on this issue. The images which have emerged from Texas should be enough to push both sides of the political aisle to come up with a just and compassionate solution. Refugees have already been the victims of wars, violence, and devastation. They should not become victims of internal politics and a broken system.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an immigration attorney focusing on asylum in Berkeley California.