The Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security arbitrarily arrests refugees and asylum seekers who have committed no crime. The pretext for these arrests and detention is the different levels of the long paperwork process that one must go through to be granted asylum in the United States.

An Ethiopian Refugee comes to the United States to seek asylum from torture and ethnic persecution. Although he has a sponsor, and all of the right paperwork to affirm that he is not a security risk, he is still arrested and imprisoned for ten months waiting for the U.S. Government to recognize his asylum. Probation is not an option for asylum seekers.

The Department of Homeland Security detains asylum seekers while their claims go through the adjudication system. These asylum seekers are often detained for many months (sometimes over a year) in prison or prison-like conditions without legal charges. More than one third do not have legal representation.

According to a Human Rights First report, there have been over 48,000 asylum seekers in U.S. jails and ICE detention since the Department of Homeland Security took over immigration enforcement in March 2003. Human Rights First calculated that the cost of these detentions exceed $300 million over a 6-year period.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants determined that in 2007 alone 7,000 children refugees or asylum seekers were imprisoned awaiting asylum status.

Once asylum or refugee status is granted, however, there is a further hurdle that sends many refugees right back into the prison system. According to a Human Rights Watch report published last month, federal regulations require that refugees be in the United States for one year before applying for a Green Card, however after one year in the country ICE can arrest any refugee without a Green Card. This contradiction in the law implicitly condemns all refugees and asylum seekers to potential imprisonment. The only way to completely avoid imprisonment is for a refugee to marry a U.S. national.

Furthermore, many refugees are unaware that they must apply for a Green Card, and there is no system in place to inform refugees of this legal requirement. Children are not exempt of this requirement either, and many refugees in prison today came to the United States as a child. One imprisoned refugee told Human Rights Watch “Nobody even mentioned it to me. They gave us the I-94; there is no expiration date… How am I going to know?”

The detention of refugees and asylum seekers is stressful (at best) to a group of people who have fled war, ethnic persicution, and torture. One refugee put it this way, “You claim that you’re saving me from a war… ten in a cell and we use one toilet. That alone is just really stressful for me.”

Detention of any person without legal charges for an unspecified amount of time is a breach of  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 9) of which the United States is a party.

The ICE responded to both the Human Rights First and the Human Rights Watch reports saying that the practice is under review.