The Refugee Crisis in Our Backyard: Guest post by ‘Sanctuary and Asylum’ author Linda Rabben

In this guest post, Linda Rabbenhuman rights activist, anthropologist, and author of Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political Historydraws from recent events in the Pacific Northwest to argue for alternatives to detaining refugees. Dr. Rabben will lecture this week about human rights, the history of sanctuary, and responses to the current refugee crisis at the University of Washington and other Seattle venues.

To many people in the United States, the international refugee crisis seems far away, in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia. But in fact it’s playing out at the local immigrant detention center in Tacoma and in federal court in Seattle.

In mid-2015 a Somali boy fled his home after his father was murdered. He traveled alone through South and Central America to seek refuge in the United States. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) placed him with a foster family in Portland. But in late 2015 federal officials decided that he was not really a minor. They based their conclusion on a discredited dental radiograph test.

Join us for these events:

October 6 at 4 p.m. // Freedom of Movement – A Human Right?, University of Washington, CMU 120 (Sponsored by Latin American and Caribbean Studies, UW Center for Human Rights, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington Press, and UW Graduate School), Seattle, WA

October 10 at 7 p.m. // Faith Justice Meeting on Immigration, St. Joseph Parish (732 18th Ave. East, Arrupe Room), Seattle, WA

October 18 at 7 p.m. // Barnes & Noble at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC

November 2 at 7:30 p.m. // Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore, MD

Congress had passed a law in 2008 banning immigration authorities from determining age solely on the basis of dental radiographs. But ORR agents arrested the boy at his high school in Portland anyway. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) then shipped him to Northwest Detention Center, a private facility for adults in Tacoma.

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle advocacy group, filed a habeas corpus petition on the boy’s behalf. In a May press release NWIRP legal director Matt Adams called ICE’s actions “indefensible. Instead of protecting unaccompanied children, and focusing enforcement actions on those who pose an actual threat to the community, they targeted a child, who, after escaping horrible violence, was now integrated with his foster family, his high school and community.”

A Chief Magistrate judge and a US District Court judge in Seattle ruled that the boy must be released from ICE custody. Using a bone scan as the only evidence of someone’s age violates federal law, they said.

After two months in the detention center, the boy returned to his family and school in Portland. But his stay in an adult facility marked him. “I was shocked and felt beat down, my mind wasn’t working, it was so unexpected. . . . I couldn’t sleep for two days. I could barely eat. I was so scared. . . . The experience was so painful, it is hard for me to describe in English,” he told NWIRP.

With the resilience of youth, however, he declared that he would continue working toward his high school diploma while waiting for his asylum case decision. In July he received a special juvenile immigrant visa and removal proceedings against him were terminated. He is now on the path to permanent legal residence.

Why was the government so determined to put a high-school student with no criminal record, the survivor of hideous violence with a strong claim for asylum, in an adult facility where he could be detained indefinitely and deported?

The answer may be found in the US immigration detention system. By law, every day more than 30,000 migrants are detained in private and public prisons and jails. The detainees include asylum seekers and others who have committed no crime. The government pays the companies and local authorities that run these facilities millions of dollars every month—about $2 billion a year—whether or not they fill this daily “bed quota.” Often migrants are shipped around the country to remote facilities, and they lose touch with their families and lawyers, if they can afford lawyers. Some are traumatized; some die.

The Department of Justice recently decided to phase out private federal prisons by 2020. But the Department of Homeland Security has not decided yet if it will phase out the privately run immigrant detention centers, where conditions are often poor. The government extended its contract with Northwest Detention Center, run by the GEO group, for 10 years in 2015, despite repeated complaints by detainees, NWIRP, and other organizations about substandard conditions.

There are better, more humane, and cheaper ways to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who enter the United States each year seeking refuge and a decent life. NWIRP, the Detention Watch Network, and other groups in and beyond Seattle provide information on alternatives to detention and recommendations for action on this issue. If you want to see your taxes put to more constructive use, educate yourself and get involved.

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Linda Rabben is a human rights advocate and associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of books including Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, Give Refuge to the Stranger: The Past, Present, and Future of Sanctuary, Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigns and Campaigners, and Brazil’s Indians and the Onslaught of Civilization: The Yanomami and the Kayapo.