Auxiliary Bishop of Miami and Chairman, USCCB Committee on Migration
May 1, 2003
On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, I wish to express my deep concern over a recent precedent decision of the Attorney General denying release to an 18 year old Haitian asylum-seeker. In spite of the fact that an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals had found that David Joseph should be released on bond, the Attorney General concluded that he should be detained pending removal in order to deter future migrations by sea, and in the interest of national security. The decision sets a dangerous precedent for detaining asylum seekers for the purpose of deterring future migrations of those fleeing persecution. Furthermore, it establishes nationality based detention based on national security grounds without any individual determination of whether an asylum seeker, in fact, presents a national security threat.
Asylum seekers should only be detained when necessary for the limited purposes of individually determining danger to the community and risk of flight, and should not be detained for purposes of deterrence. It is widely agreed among international and human rights organizations that this is not an appropriate use of detention. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that detention of asylum seekers for purposes of deterrence is an "inappropriate goal and insufficient reason for detention." The only acceptable purpose of immigration detention, which is civil, non-criminal detention, should be to ensure that individuals appear for their hearings and can be removed when necessary. People seeking asylum and fleeing persecution should never be sent the message of deterrence through detention. Whenever possible, these individuals, many of whom have already endured severe hardship and persecution should be released into the community pending decisions on their asylum claims.
The conclusion by the Attorney General that Mr. Joseph should be held for national security reasons was not based upon any individual determination of his security risk, but on the claim that increased migration by sea would divert Coast Guard and Department of Defense resources from counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. A second national security interest cited by the Attorney General was an assertion that Haiti is being used as a base for third country nationals seeking to enter the United States, presumably to engage in terrorism.
Even if it were the case that Haiti, or any other country, was being used as a base for third party nationals to enter the country, U.S. law provides for individualized bond determinations to ascertain whether an individual is a flight risk or a danger to the community, as well as whether an individual presents a national security risk. The Attorney General's stated concern that "the release on bond of undocumented seagoing migrant aliens from Haiti without adequate background screening or investigation presents a risk to national security" is far from insurmountable. The government conducts security checks on thousands of non-citizens. Surely, the same type of screening could be applied to a few hundred Haitians.
I find the decision in this matter troubling and call upon the Attorney General to reverse his ruling in this case. We renew our call for respect to be shown for the human dignity of Haitians and other asylum-seekers arriving at our shores, including not subjecting asylum seekers to prolonged detention as their claims are adjudicated.
Most importantly, this new policy may cause undue suffering to thousands of innocent people who come to our land to find protection from persecution. Such systematic and discriminatory treatment of those who seek our safe haven undermines our tradition as a defender of human rights and further erodes U.S. leadership and moral authority around the world.