I recently flew to Amelia Island in Florida to attend the wedding of a close friend from Med-school. As one often does when reunited with good friends, I found myself in a slightly inebriated rant about the rising proportion of my patients who have been showing up to refugee clinic with electronic monitoring devices around their ankles. My friends in residencies in Baltimore and California had been seeing more and more of these patients as well and mirrored my indignant frustration at this turn of events. Little did I know that the use of electronic monitors by US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was not as recent of a development as I had initially thought.
So why then had I only started seeing these ankle monitors in the past few months, and in such high numbers? Typically, the patient’s I’ve seen have invariably been through a tough journey from Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, or a combination of the two (I don’t usually see patients from Honduras or Guatemala at the BUMC refugee clinic – still not sure how the usual patterns of migration through the US come about), get detained for some period of time somewhere in Texas, then somehow end up at our clinic with an ankle monitor clinging to them heavily like a constant reminder that they are yet to be free. This ends up being a whole new story of trauma piled on top of the trauma they’ve been trying to flee to begin with. Two things I’ve read that definitely ring true to my patient’s stories, together help partially explain the recent surge in the number of ankle monitors we’ve been seeing in our hospitals and clinics:
1. Many Haitians who fled to Brazil after the earthquake in 2010 are now leaving Brazil where the failing economy has led to a scarcity of jobs and a significant rise in crimes, violence and mistreatment of women.
2. California District Judge Dolly M. Gee issued a federal court order in July 2015, ordering the release of migrant children from family detention centers. The conditions, she decided, were in violation of an agreement that barred children from being held in unlicensed facilities. While ICE did not quite do as ordered, this led to an increase in alternative methods to of tracking to replace indefinite detention of families.
While this was going on, there was a clear change in patterns of migrants coming in from Mexico and Central America, with decreasing proportions of men traveling alone and increasing numbers of families, women with children, in addition to unaccompanied children.
GPS ankle monitors are becoming standard equipment for immigration officials along the border. In July 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, used about 9,300 ankle monitors at a time — 40% more than about six months ago. They are run by a government contractor, BI Inc., a subsidiary of the country’s second-largest prison company, which also operates immigration detention centers.
Now it’s easy to take the moral high ground and say that the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers across the globe and in the US over the past few years has violated basic human rights. The horrifying accounts and harrowing tales abound and there’s something to be said about how easy it’s been to shift the focus of these conversations from asylum seekers, refugees, survivors of trauma to illegal immigrants. I have to admit that even I have caught myself using those terms interchangeably. That the suffering in some countries has exhausted the generosity of most others belies the complexity of these issues. What I find most frustrating is that with all my years of higher education, my access to information, to name just a few of the advantages that separate me from the thousands attempting to seek refuge here, I’m not sure I’d be able to navigate the legal system within which they are so violently pushed. That being said, I don’t have a solution to propose. I will instead share some interesting numbers I’ve seen on my readings.
The number of asylum seekers sent to and held in immigration detention has increased nearly threefold from 2010 to 2014. In FY 2010, 15,683 asylum seekers—or 45 percent of all asylum seekers in removal proceedings—were detained. In FY 2014, that number jumped to 44,228—77 percent of all asylum seekers in court proceedings.
In 2016, the U.S. immigration court and asylum systems were backlogged with more than 620,000 pending removal and asylum cases.
Asylum-seekers pursuing status through the defensive process (in immigration court) face wait times of more than three years, on average. In some states, the wait times can be as long as five years, as is the case in Texas.
And some articles that are worth reading if you have the time:
1.The refugees who are returned to Central America can be subject to even greater harassment by gangs for having fled. Hector Hernandez, a morgue operator in Honduras, has said that children who come back from U.S. detention “return just to die.” Jose Luis Aguilar, the city councilor for Artesia, recalled a group deportation on the day in July when Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the facility. “He came in the morning, and that same night, they took 79 people and shipped them to El Salvador on the ICE plane,” Aguilar said. “We got reports later that 10 kids had been killed. The church group confirmed that with four of the mortuaries where they went.” New York Times article
2.Advocates say this kind of monitoring is unnecessary. Data published last year by the Asylum Division of US Citizenship and Immigration Services shows that 88 percent of families who are detained have passed the initial credible fear interview, which puts them on a path to asylum. “The chance for legal status is what keeps them from running away, not ankle bracelets.”
4. Human Rights First report “Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased US Detention of Asylum Seekers
– Asylum seekers who request protection at U.S. airports and other official ports of entry are not provided access to prompt immigration court custody hearings, leaving many in detention for months, despite international law requirements of prompt court review.
– Under U.S. immigration regulations, individuals classified as “arriving aliens” are not afforded a prompt opportunity to contest their confinement before an immigration judge.
– Of the attorneys Human Right First surveyed across the country, 84 percent indicated that immigration judges largely ignore their authority to release individuals on conditional parole, requiring payment of a monetary bond instead.
– Many asylum seekers cannot afford to pay bonds because they are indigent, forcing them to remain in detention or to seek the services of bail bondsman companies, which may charge exorbitant fees or even place their own GPS monitors on immigrants desperate to be free from detention.
5. In October 2015, 54 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan refused food and water in the El Paso Processing Center in El Paso, Texas. Approximately 150 asylum seekers in six detention centers in Alabama, California, Colorado, and Texas joined in solidarity hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention, echoing earlier calls for release.
6. A recent study by Human Impact Partners found that an estimated 43,000 U.S. citizen children will experience poorer health outcomes as a result of the threat of detention and deportation of a parent.