Rights groups say it can take “months and years” for asylum seekers to have a hearing before an immigration judge [File: Russell Contreras/AP]
An immigration detention centre in the United States has been ordered to “immediately” reform the parole process for people arriving in the country seeking asylum.
Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford ruled that the facility in the state of New York must stop detaining asylum seekers “without a fair opportunity for release” on parole or bond, the International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) said in a statement on Monday.
The two groups, which filed a suit in July, said asylum seekers are entitled to be considered for release on parole while awaiting their hearings.
But the practice at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility “effectively stopped” in late January, leaving dozens of people in detention.
The alleged activity violates both the law and a 2009 internal ICE policy (PDF) that says asylum seekers who prove they are not a flight risk or threat should be released on parole or bond, Aadhithi Padmanabhan, the NYCLU’s lead counsel on the case, told Al Jazeera.
He said that it can take “months and years” for asylum seekers to have a hearing before an immigration judge.
The Buffalo detention centre is a 650-bed facility, the largest of its kind in the state of New York. It is located roughly 80km from the US-Canada border in the town of Batavia.
Mariko Hirose, IRAP’s litigation director, told Al Jazeera that full information for all asylum seekers at the facility is not yet available yet.
However, of the 28 cases from which IRAP and the NYCLU have data, the average length of detention is 387 days.
Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers at the centre were also accused of not providing information in languages the asylum seekers can understand.
However, following the judge’s order on Friday, “asylum seekers will be notified of the availability of parole in a language they understand”, the groups said.
The asylum seekers will also “be given a parole interview with an immigration officer, be provided an explanation for their parole decision and be informed they can seek reconsideration if parole is initially denied”.
Asylum seekers’ testimonies
Parole rates dropped significantly in the last year of the Obama administration, falling to 50 percent by the end of his presidency.
These rates fell to less than 15 percent during the first seven months of the administration of President Donald Trump, according to the July lawsuit.
Trump’s government has been accused of taking a hardline stance against immigrants and refugees, initiating deportation crackdowns, pushing for a wall on the US-Mexico border and issuing a series of executive orders known as “Muslim bans” that dramatically limit refugee numbers.
Christopher Dunn, associated legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which worked with IRAP in the filing of the lawsuit, said in the groups’ statement that the judge’s decision was “a strong rebuke to the Trump administration’s campaign against immigrants”.
Wolford,the presiding judge, wrote in her decision that Hanad Abdi, a 26-year-old native of Somalia, and Johan Barrios Ramos, a 40-year-old from Cuba, came to the US with a “credible fear of returning to their homelands” due to the “significant possibility” of torture or persecution.
Abdi, a member of a minority tribe in Somalia, said he was captured and beaten by a larger, more powerful tribe after they killed his father.
“I fled persecution in Somalia and came to America because people all around the world think of this country as a beacon of hope,” Abdi said in the groups’ statement.
“But during the 10 months I was imprisoned at Batavia, not knowing why I was jailed or how I could get out, I felt hopeless.”
Barrios Ramos left Cuba in 2016 after engaging in anti-government protests. He claims he was tortured by Cuban law enforcement after being arrested.
“I fled Cuba where I was a political prisoner and came to America seeking freedom,” Barrios Ramos said. “I was shocked when I got here and asked for asylum but was instead put in jail”.
Continuing to detain Barrios Ramos and Abdi “without any appropriate process” would result in “extreme or very serious irreparable harm,” Wolford wrote.
When asked for comment on the decision, ICE told Al Jazeera it “will not comment directly to any litigation or ruling”.
Padmanabhan said the groups’ legal team is “going to follow up” with asylum seekers inside the detention centre to make sure the order is properly implemented.