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The Trump administration has attempted to close the door on asylum seekers who are looking for refuge in the United States. But even as it blocks entry — and sends tens of thousands of asylum seekers away to wait out their immigration proceedings — thousands of families with children are also being held in federal immigration detention facilities.

Because the administration has prohibited advocacy groups, journalists, immigration attorneys and even congressional staff from entering detention facilities to document conditions and interview detainees, the public has had only anecdotal glimpses into how detainees were treated.

In many ways, it is worse than we thought.

Underestimating the abuse

From October 2018 through June 2019, the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) assisted approximately 7,300 asylum-seeking families at their shelters. These families, who were processed and then admitted into the US, totalled more than 17,000 people, including 7,900 children 5 years old or younger. In a report released last week, approximately 35 per cent of the asylum-seeking heads of households studied reported problems related to conditions in immigration detention, treatment in immigration detention, or medical issues. This finding is alarming since it’s very likely an underestimate. Moreover, abuses or problems in detention may be underreported by asylum seekers who are afraid that raising complaints may negatively affect their asylum case.

More on the topic

Of those who reported issues related to conditions in detention, approximately six out of 10 reported food and water problems, including not having enough to eat, being fed frozen food, being fed spoiled food, not being given formula for infants, not being given water, and having to drink dirty or foul-tasting water. Approximately half reported having to sleep in overcrowded conditions, confinement, and the temperature being too cold in “la hielera,” the detention facilities known as the “iceboxes.” Approximately one out of every three reported not having access to clean or sanitary toilets, being able to shower or being able to brush their teeth.

About one out of 10 of the asylum-seeking heads of households — or more than 700 of them — reported verbal abuse, physical abuse or some form of mistreatment in immigration detention. Examples of physical abuse include being thrown against the wall when attempting to get a drink of water.

Deterring asylum seekers

The data also showed the great diversity of those who arrive at the US southern border to seek refuge. The majority of the asylum-seeking families came from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. However, many also came from other continents, 28 in all, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, China and Vietnam, to name a few. Any changes to US asylum policies meant to deter Central Americans from entering at the southern border will affect asylum seekers from all over the world who are also looking to the US for safety.

It was also found that just over one out of 5 of these families do not speak Spanish as their primary language. The languages spoken range from indigenous Central American languages — including K’iche’, Q’eqchi’ and Mam — to Creole, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Vietnamese and Romanian, among others. This linguistic diversity presents another set of challenges.

Notice to appear

When asylum seekers are released from detention, they are given detailed instructions on a form called the “Notice to Appear,” including instructions about their immigration court dates, times and locations. On the notice, immigration officials indicate the language that the asylum seeker was given these instructions in. For those whose primary language is not Spanish, nearly nine out of every 10 were nevertheless given instructions in Spanish. If these families are not provided instructions about their immigration proceedings in a language they can understand, they will not be able to navigate an extremely complex legal process, which may infringe on their basic rights to due process.

From substandard conditions in immigration detention to verbal and physical abuse to serious due process concerns, the data show that the current US administration is not abiding by its obligations under US and international asylum and refugee law to treat humanely those who are seeking protection from persecution.

With the administration now determined to hold asylum-seeking families for potentially as long as it takes for their immigration proceedings to play out (which could be years), conditions may get worse.

— Los Angeles Times

Tom K. Wong is associate professor of political science and director of the US Immigration Policy Centre at UC San Diego.