By Reporter
updated 6/20/2005 8:15:27 AM ET 2005-06-20T12:15:27

ELIZABETH, N.J. — “Truly, detention is very, very hard … It’s like prison,” said Ahmed, a 26-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast who is seeking political asylum in this country. Meantime, he has spent the last six months of his life behind bars with no immediate sign of release.

“But, I can not return to my country right now because the situation is too difficult there — with the war, the conflict. I risk my life if I return. So, I am obliged to wait,” said Ahmed, who requested that his full name not be used in order to protect his security and that of his family in the Ivory Coast. 

Whether or not the West African's case for political asylum succeeds remains in the hands of a U.S. Immigration Court. For now, as far as Immigration Customs Enforcement, a part of the Bureau of Homeland Security, is concerned, Ahmed is a man who came into this country under false documents. So since his identity and whatever else he is claiming are unclear, he must remain in detention until his case is decided.

As the U.N. marks World Refugee Day on Monday, Ahmed is just one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled to the United States seeking refuge and political asylum since the nation's founding.

The notion of providing “asylum” and a safe haven to people suffering from persecution based on their political or religious beliefs is ingrained as a part of American society since its foundation.

But in the past few years there has been a decline in the number of immigrants seeking asylum here — 46,776 in the 2000 fiscal year compared with 31,561 in 2004 — and those who seek refuge are usually incarcerated as soon as they touch U.S. soil. Many officials attribute the decline in numbers to greater vigilance and much more thorough investigations into the background and identity of each and every person that enters the country on the part of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

“Detention is devastating to our clients," said Eleanor Acer, Director of the Asylum Program at Human Rights First, an advocacy group that provides pro-bono legal representation to refugees. "Many come here to the United States because they believe that this country is the land of freedom and liberty and a place where they will find protection. They are often shocked to find themselves greeted with handcuffs and shackles and put into prison garb and held in jail,” she said.

Few options left
According to Ahmed, he fled the Ivory Coast for fear of his life because of his membership of the main opposition political party — the Rally of Republicans, commonly known as the RDR.

Beginning in 2000, Ahmed says that he was picked up in the capital, Abidjan, by the ruling party’s militia numerous times and was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned for several days at a time as a result of his political activity. He was finally driven into hiding, but that did not stop military thugs from searching for him at his home and killing his mother when they failed to find him.

With options running out, Ahmed traveled to the United States with false papers and arrived at JFK Airport on Dec. 27, 2004. When his papers were questioned, he claims that he immediately stated that they were false and requested political asylum for his protection.

But, as far as Immigration Customs Enforcement officials were concerned, he was an individual who sought entry with a stolen passport. As long as his identity and his claim for asylum are investigated, he has to remain in detention according to Michael Gilhooly, Spokesman for Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Ahmed was sent to the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens, N.Y., sharing a room with 40 other men that had no windows, but 31 hanging lights that were illuminated from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. everyday, and his bed could be found next to the one of four toilets the men shared. The food was so awful that he lost over 20 pounds and he became sick because of the full-blast air conditioning at the facility.

The Wackenhut facility was closed at the beginning of June and Ahmed was transferred to the Elizabeth Detention Facility in New Jersey where he said conditions are better. 

Ahmed’s case for asylum is being fought by his pro-bono lawyer Shawn Friedman — from the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips — who he was matched up with by the advocacy group, Human Rights First.

Detention part of the process
There are some obvious reasons why initially detaining someone upon the presentation of false papers is necessary, according to the government.

Bill Strassberger, Public Affairs Officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explained that, “first and foremost, the reason for detention is to determine a person’s identity, then to be able to determine are they a flight risk, and whether or not they a danger to the community.”

But, there are no easy answers for why detention is usually such a lengthy and arduous process. “Detaining asylum seekers is unfortunate, but it is necessary — especially when you take today’s situation and the war on terrorism into account. We have to strike a balance in providing protection and asylum to those who are fleeing persecution and the needs of the country and providing protection to the United States and its security,” Strassberger said.

Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), is responsible for enforcing the immigration and customs laws of the United States. There are between 21,000- 22,000 detainees in the custody of ICE at any given time across the country, the vast majority of whom have aggravated felonies or under immigration law are mandatory detainees, according to Michael Gilhooly, a spokesman of Immigration Customs Enforcement.

“Since 9/11 which everyone agrees was just a horrible event, we [The Department of Homeland Security] have become more thorough in our investigation of immigration benefit claims, because we want to make sure that the people who make asylum claims are the people they claim to be,” Gilhooly said.

Gilhooly related the story of the infamous mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing Ramsey Yousef, as a perfect example of why Immigration Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security in general have to be so vigilant at the nation’s borders and are compelled to examine every possible asylum case so closely. 

Yousef “entered the U.S. in 1992 without a valid visa, we detected that, he requested an immigration benefit and instead of being detained, he was paroled into the country by INS [the former Immigration & Naturalization Services]. Had he been detained and his case adjudicated, his benefit claim would have failed and he wouldn’t be known as the person who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing,” said Gilhooly.

“Obviously, it varies, case to case and person to person. But you can see why we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the public, and that is why we take a great deal of time in determining whether an individual should be detained or is eligible for parole,” he said.

Treated like criminals’
Many human rights advocates reject the necessity for and nature of the detention.

“I think that it is nothing short of a national disgrace that individuals who come to this country seeking safety and asylum are treated like criminals and held in prisons for months, if not years, while their asylum claims are being adjudicated,” said Dr. Alan Keller, the Program Director for the Bellevue/ NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.

Keller is one of the authors of a report done by the Bellevue/ NYU Program for Survivors of Torture in conjunction with Physicians for Human Rights that documented the harmful effects of detention on the health and well-being of asylum seekers entitled, “From Persecution to Prison: the Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers.”

“I have a number of patients who have been detained in these facilities, so in addition to the trauma they have endured in their own countries, they were re-traumatized there,” said Keller. “Over and over, I have heard patients say, ‘I came here seeking safety, I never thought I would be treated like a criminal.”  

At some point, the detainees get their day in court. 

According to the government, the asylum seeker’s case is based on physical evidence, witnesses, how consistent a story is, and the known conditions in the home country - based on State Department country reports, as well as other outside sources.

ImmigrationBut, at the end of the day, it boils down to credibility. How believable is the asylum seeker’s story.

In Ahmed’s case, Friedman, his lawyer, explained that they have provided the government with extensive documentation to prove his case. In order to prove his identity, they submitted his Ivorian identity card and passport; in order to prove his education, they submitted diplomas, in order to confirm his political activity, they submitted his RDR membership card, as well as a certificate from the General Secretary of the RDR in the Ivory Coast and a letter from the head of the RDR in the U.S. and Canada, to confirm his political activity.

Since his mother was killed, they also submitted as evidence his mother’s death certificate and her hospital admission form on which her admitting physician detailed the circumstances of injuries - including that she suffered from eventration or stomach wounds inflicted by repeated blows from a machete.

Ahmed’s legal team will also call an expert from Rutgers University who specializes in African history, particularly the Ivory Coast, to testify about the country conditions and to be available for any questions the government may have.

But again, when Ahmed has his final merits hearing in front of an immigration judge at the beginning of August, his case will come down to a question of credibility.

“Mostly it’s going to be his story. Does he have a credible fear of returning and that’s our burden to meet,” Friedman said.

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