Defending the Rights of Asylum Seekers

At the base of the Statue of Liberty, a national symbol of democracy and freedom, these words by poet Emma Lazarus appear: “Give me your tired, your poor, [y]our huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Most U.S. residents are descendants of immigrants. The privilege of being a U.S. resident comes with a moral duty to assist people fleeing persecution and seeking safe haven at our borders. Acting on this moral responsibility, UUSC is working with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services and Education (RAICES) to support families seeking asylum as they navigate the inhumane immigration system.

Defending the rights of refugees goes beyond acting on a gut feeling that it’s the right thing to do. Protections for asylum seekers are actually codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Protocol, and U.S. domestic legislation in the form of the Refugee Act of 1980.


While anti-immigrant crusaders have lumped women and children refugees from Central America into the category of “illegal aliens,” these families are hardly foreign invaders. Over the past year, women and children have been arriving in droves at the U.S.-Mexico border from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which experience some of the region's highest rates of poverty and homicide.

For example, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women recently noted that in Honduras violent deaths of women have increased 263.4% between 2005 and 2013. This, along with high levels of domestic and sexual violence, obviously raises grave concerns. At the same time, she also found that there is a 95% impunity rate for gender-based violence there. In this context, is it any surprise that almost 40% of the unaccompanied children who arrived at the border last year were girls and the majority of the adults were women?

In 2014 alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 68,631 unaccompanied children and 68,445 family units at the U.S. border. Rather than meet the needs of this increasingly vulnerable category of refugees — families who have risked everything to come to the United States — the U.S. government began directing incoming women and child refugees to for-profit detention centers. Under this policy, families have been detained indefinitely, faced considerable barriers to outside services, and lacked information about their cases. Children are growing up in cold prison blocks surrounded by anxious caregivers and with little hope for their future.


RAICES, UUSC’s partner on the ground in San Antonio, Texas, has been working around the clock to ensure that detained women and children receive education about their rights and adequate preparation for filing their asylum applications with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). RAICES also works with networks of pro bono attorneys from throughout the country to provide families with legal representation for their individual merits hearings.

RAICES, a small grassroots organization, is facing two major barriers in this work: ICE’s insistence on unusually high bonds and the inability of RAICES staff to keep up with the high volume of arriving refugees. UUSC is working with RAICES to help them develop a short social media film to draw attention to the issues and help raise money for the bond fund for the families. UUSC has also delivered petitions to the Obama administration rejecting the practice of family detention and sponsored related congressional briefings. Working in a coalition of faith-based and secular organizations, UUSC has been lifting up the work of local partners and addressing the issues head on. And it’s gone one step further: this summer UUSC partnered with the UU College of Social Justice to send teams of Spanish-speaking volunteers and pro bono attorneys to assist with intake and representation.


No one can anticipate when this nightmare of family imprisonment will end, but many are working hard to make that happen. As the government continues to build out the detention centers and make room for more beds, the protests from the advocacy community grow louder and louder. Despite ICE’s attempts to cover up the horrors of the system, information about miscarriages, attempted suicides, and cases of women wrongly deported without access to their lawyers continues to be leaked to the press each week.

UUSC was part of a coalition that finally gained a little traction in June when a team of congressional delegates visited the detention centers in response to public outcry. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a ranking member of the House immigration subcommittee, stressed that there are alternatives to detention. Her main criticism of the idea of locking up small children and mothers in for-profit jails was that it’s “not what civilized societies do.”

Two days later, just as the congressional delegation was about to hold its press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a press release outlining a new shift in the administration’s immigration policies concerning family detention. The announcement suggested some positive changes to the current detention regime, but it said nothing about the need to end prolonged family detention.

While the administration finally admitted that family detention was fundamentally flawed and required “substantial changes,” the recommended reforms were actually policies that should have already been in effect. The agency’s so-called improvements, including conducting interviews within a “reasonable time frame” and setting reasonable bond amounts, do not inspire confidence when what’s “reasonable” can change quickly and ICE continuously ignores its own directives.


Even short-term detention inflicts psychological damage on mothers and children who have already been traumatized. And beefing up border security does nothing to deter people fleeing persecution — it only makes it more expensive and fuels the human smuggling trade.

It’s time to end family detention for women and children with genuine claims of persecution. We must stay true to our U.S. values and founding principles. We must shut down family detention facilities.

UPDATE July 21, 2015: On the tail of Secretary Johnson’s announcements, last week ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha confirmed in an e-mail that they will be releasing from the detention centers all women and children who have received a positive fear finding during the first step of the asylum process — their credible and reasonable fear interview. As everyone awaits the court’s decision in the Flores case regarding the policy surrounding the detention of children, it is not clear how soon these women and children will be released or how court advocates can press for their release without official guidelines and defined parameters. Recent developments concerning the use of GPS ankle monitors also raise concerns about whether this is the least restricting alternative available and what the criteria for assessing their use will be. UUSC maintains that these ankle monitors should only be used when the individual is a potential flight risk. Concerns remain about just how long incoming children and their mothers will be detained upon their arrival and request for asylum in our country.

By Rachel Gore Freed, Senior Program Leader, Rights at Risk, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

This article was originally published by UUSC at as part of Toward Justice, its quarterly e-newsletter.