by Randall Hatfield, staff writer

MAY 2022 — For more than 200 years, America has been seen as a cultural “melting pot,” a place where people from all backgrounds could come together and find a new, better life. Yet, the legislation of the immigration system creates a hate-filled, dangerous road for prospective immigrants to the U.S.

Language services are meant to be present during deportation hearings, but some of these services may be inadequate—or even absent—in violation of the law. As a result, many immigrants wait day after day for their chance to plead their case in an unfair trial.

“How can we call ourselves the land of the free if we’re so willing to abide by a system that makes money off of imprisoning guiltless people for profit?”

Randall Hatfield, staff writer

First, it’s important to clarify the difference between immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. Amnesty International defines an immigrant as a person who intends to move to a different country for permanent residency, possibly for work, or civil unrest in their home country. Asylum-seekers are people who have fled their home countries in order to escape persecution or injustice. Asylum-seekers, once granted asylum, become refugees and are granted legal protection against being sent back to their home countries.

Because immigrating for asylum is typically done out of necessity, the law states that all asylum seekers should have the opportunity to formally apply for asylum in the United States, regardless of whether they entered the country legally. As long as asylum-seekers are able to prove before the law that they were at serious risk of being unjustly persecuted in their home countries, they can be considered for refugee status.

Despite this, undocumented asylum-seekers’ rights have been infringed upon countless times, resulting in the unlawful detention of many—the very thing that they came here to escape.

The 1903 Supreme Court case Yamataya v. Fisher established that all immigrants, entering unlawfully or not, have the right to ask for legal due process in a court of law. While this was a step forward, accessing information about the trial can be incredibly difficult. Even harder, detainees are not guaranteed the right to legal counsel, so those who cannot afford a lawyer may have inadequate legal help, or even to represent themselves in court without easy access to learn how to do so.

Data from an American Immigration Council study shows that only around 37 percent of all U.S. Immigrants have access to legal counsel to represent them in court. Graphic obtained from the American Immigration Council.

Immigration hearings can take months to happen, and in the meantime, detainees are sent to detention centers to wait. It would be more appropriate to call these centers prisons, as many of them are offloaded by ICE to private prison companies for profit.

Demographics in detention centers vary widely. Of those imprisoned, many have no criminal record, and many of those that do only have minor offenses, like traffic violations, on record. Ages vary, typically, those in ICE detention are between 26 and 35 years old, but people as old as 79 have been detained. Children are also detained frequently. In 2019, 69,950 children were imprisoned, according to NCSL.

Conditions for detainees are often poor. Cells are frigid, and many state that they were forbidden from showering, brushing their teeth, or practicing personal hygiene while stationed there.

Reports also indicate that many are deprived of proper nourishment, and the risk of disease transmission is greatly increased due to the close quarters and weakness. Since the pandemic, according to statistics on the ICE website, the spread of COVID-19 has affected 43,153 detainees, and 11 have died.

How can we call ourselves the land of the free if we’re so willing to abide by a system that makes money off of imprisoning guiltless people for profit?

A graph from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse outlining the percentage of detainees without a criminal record. This data was taken April 24 and uses a sample size of 19,502 people. Graphic obtained from Transactional Records Access Clearance.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 was put before the 117th Congress on February 18, 2021, and intended to reform the U.S. immigration system. The bill, if passed by the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, would work to open up immigration opportunities to all, making it easier to apply for permanent residency, and readdressing qualifications for employees of Customs and Border Patrol centers.

The bill will not magically repair every issue and injustice within the immigration system, but it will be a much-needed start to repairing this critical issue affecting so many people.

For more information about immigration in the U.S. and all around the world, I recommend the National Immigrant Justice Center, and Amnesty International. Movements like Amnesty’s National Week for Student Action are ways to get involved, and influence legislation at the national level.

At the end of the day, these are people — sons, daughters, husbands, and wives — are striving for the human right of a free life. We need to do better for the migrants and asylum-seekers that our country attracts. Only once all have equal rights and opportunity, can we have liberty and justice for all.

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