Senators Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, calling for more humane treatment of asylum seekers and other detained immigrants, introduced legislation Thursday to improve detainee housing, medical treatment, and opportunities to appeal their detentions.
The Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act of 2009 stems from the Senators’ longstanding advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers, refugees, and detained immigrants. This is the third consecutive Congress that this legislation has been introduced.
“The number of detained immigrants has risen sharply in recent years and the detention system has not kept pace in ensuring humane conditions, proper medical treatment, or basic legal protections,” Lieberman said. “It often takes many months for the government to determine which individuals are entitled to remain in the U.S., during which time detainees are subjected to severe conditions in county
jails and similar facilities. We can reduce the detained population by establishing fair procedures for reviewing detention decisions and by expanding alternatives to detention programs. And we must treat those who are detained in a manner consistent with our basic principles of fairness and decency.”
Akaka said: “I am proud to join Senator Lieberman in introducing this important bill to improve civil immigration detention standards. In particular, it is critical to limit the detention of families with children, increase legal counseling provided to detained immigrants, and create binding standards for detention conditions. I appreciate the Department of Homeland Security’s work to improve detention
conditions, and I am hopeful Congress and the Administration can work together to accomplish meaningful reform.”
The Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act would require:
• Improved detention conditions, including prompt medical care that complies with accreditation requirements, unobstructed access to legal counsel, limits on the use of solitary confinement and other punitive treatment, and special standards for families and
for victims of persecution and torture;
• Review by an immigration judge within two weeks of a detention decision, with consideration for release if the detainee poses no flight risk, no threat to public safety or national security, and for humanitarian reasons.
• Expanded alternatives to detention such as supervised release programs;
• Quality assurance measures, such as the recording of interviews conducted during expedited removal proceedings, to ensure that asylum seekers with a credible fear of persecution are not returned to their countries without a review of their cases;
• The reporting and investigation of all deaths that occur in detention facilities, and more vigorous scrutiny of facilities by a newly established Office of Detention Oversight;
• Restrictions on the circumstances in which families with minor children can be detained.
The legislation would implement recommendations first made in 2005 in a Congressionally-mandated report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The USCIRF report described how victims of oppression were funneled into maximum security detention facilities through faulty policies and procedures. Since then, reports of deteriorating conditions have mounted, and Senator
Lieberman has pressed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to improve the treatment of asylum seekers and other detainees.
Lieberman first introduced the Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act in 2006. In 2007, it was accepted in modified form as an amendment to comprehensive immigration reform legislation, although that bill was never enacted.
The Act is supported by a broad coalition of faith-based and asylum, immigration and human rights advocacy groups, including: Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Committee, Amnesty International, the Episcopal Church, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Human Rights First, the International Rescue Committee, the Jubilee Campaign USA, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil
Rights, Legal Momentum, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the National Immigration Forum, the National Immigration Law Center, Physicians for Human Rights, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and the Women’s Refugee Commission.