World Refugee Day and Texas Demonstrations

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
by permission

Wednesday, June 20th, was the seventh annual World Refugee Day, honoring the spirit and courage of those who flee economic and political malaise. This official day was established through the United Nations.

Sometimes our country, for certain purposes, will hail the United Nations as important, demanding that other nations abide by its standards. Sometimes major US figures make speeches at the United Nations and occasionally mention the Declaration of Human Rights. But more often than not, concerning international rights and law, the US is a cheap scofflaw. I doubt World Refugee Day even crossed President Bush’s mind.

A former Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers, who is the chief U.N. commissioner on these matters, stressed that helping refugees is “a moral and legal imperative” not just an “optional act of charity.” His World Refugee Day address criticized Western Europe, according to the New York Times, for “inflaming sentiment against refugees by calling them ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who are ‘flooding’ their countries.” Lubbers said that those who talked that way used to be associated with “small extremist parties” but now are in major ones. Lubber’s criticism should sting the US as well as Europe.

In Texas this weekend, I will join two demonstrations in sympathy with World Refugee Day. One (Saturday) is against the detention center in Taylor, near Austin, which is housing children, and another (Sunday) is against the Raymondville detention center, a tent city with maybe 2,000 people, from maybe thirty different countries, sleeping in bunk bed rows and getting outside one hour a day.

These centers are improperly holding people as if they were criminals, even though the inmates have not been convicted of crimes. Some inmates held productive jobs in this country for years and are stuck because of immigration paperwork technicalities; some came to this country recently asking for legal refugee status, having fled a miserable situation.

Amnesty International, co-sponsoring the demonstration in Taylor, states on its website that established conventions assume that asylum seekers are not to be “detained” unless warranted by special circumstances. Make no mistake, these detention centers are “detaining” people.

Raymondville’s tent city center was built adjacent to another prison and has armed guards who yell at the immigrants. It forces people to stand in line, does not have private shower stalls, makes no provision for those held inside to get to a mall or movie or church event. Immigrants are not just residing there; they are detained prisoners, and scared.

Private contractors who run these for-profit prisons are getting up to $10,000 per prisoner per month. (My source is Jay Johnson-Castro, a founder of Border Ambassadors, one of the groups sponsoring the weekend demonstrations.) Juicy federal money flows to Corrections Corporation of America and other companies, although it is known that other ways of monitoring immigrants while they wait for hearings, etc. are far less costly than incarceration.

Actually, detained refugees are treated worse than criminals in a sense. Although the UN 1951 Refugee Conventions state that a refugee should have the same access to courts as a national, we now have an increasingly politicized and capricious special immigration court system under the Justice Department. According to a study last year by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), getting asylum can depend simply on what judge one gets.

The TRAC report, according to Eunice Moscoso of Cox News Service, “directly challenged” the Justice Department that runs these immigration courts. The courts have a mission statement to provide “fair, expeditious and uniform application of the nation’s immigration laws in all cases.” But one Miami judge turned down 97 percent (!) of asylum requests between 2000 and 2005, while one New York judge only turned down 10 percent.

And there even seems to be a problem with the way immigration judges have been picked. (See my June 17 column examining partisanship in Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department). A Washington Post expose this month charged that the administration “increasingly emphasized partisan political ties over expertise in recent years in selecting the judges who decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, despite laws which preclude such considerations.”

Studying immigration judges appointed by Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft, the Post article found the appointees greatly lacking in immigration law experience. (Republican fellowship seems like the main hiring criterion.) And with redress in federal courts extremely limited and habeas corpus suspended for immigrants, there goes a refugee’s right to have the same access to fair courts as a national.

Next week I will report on the demonstration at Raymondville’s detention center. I will be in Raymondville promptly at 6 pm Sunday, June 24, with my trusty notebook.

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