Government needs to reform use of detention centers for refugees

Leah Kashar

As Syrian refugees flee for their lives and enter the United States, they can expect to be basically jailed. Upon entering the United States, whether or not they present themselves to customs, asylum seekers are herded into detention centers, where they are met with inhumane conditions and held until they gain refugee status.

The process of gaining refugee status can take anywhere from months to a couple of years, and they are not released from detention centers until they gain refugee status. Asylum-seekers are kept in groups of around 100 and typically spend 23 hours a day in large dormitories or common areas. They often do not receive adequate medical care and despite the decision to outlaw putting children in detention centers, family detention centers are re-opening their doors as more refugees enter the United States.

Asylum seekers are held in detention centers unless they become part of the 1 percent of people who are able to complete the two year process to properly emigrate to the United States, according to Rebecca Katz, Hillel director of social justice programs. Katz previously worked with the undocumented population in Chicago, including refugees, for eight years. She said the policies that lead to citizenship allow more people from European countries to emigrate to the US than from other nations.

“Our immigration policies have always been dictated by other concerns: economic concerns, xenophobia, anti-semitism, racism,” Katz said. “We’re talking about people who are fleeing for their lives.”

Considering how difficult this process is to complete, it is unfair and unreasonable to expect those fleeing persecution and violence to wait two years. Furthermore, detention centers are a short-sighted bureaucratic way of dealing with the larger issue of where to place asylum seekers. Instead of creating housing communities or finding a more humane solution, the government treats refugees like a problem, instead of like people.

Upon gaining refugee status, refugees have the opportunity to apply for government benefits, such as cash and medical assistance. They often cannot utilize government benefits because the process of being approved can take almost two years from the time a refugee leaves the detention center. By the time government aid can be applied, refugees have already had to figure out an alternative plan and are no
longer eligible.

Just 20 minutes outside of UT’s campus, Casa Marianella is a positive alternative to detention centers. Refugees are often released from detention centers with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Casa Marianella is a safe space where refugees can go after being released. The organization provides housing and helps with job placement and the citizenship process.

In order for change to occur, Katz explained that the American tax dollars that currently fund detention centers should be put towards projects like Casa Marianella. Inhumane conditions are the reason why refugees left their homes in the first place and they should be treated with dignity. There is no reason these detention centers should still be employed.

“I used to say that the immigration system was broken, but I was corrected by an activist who told me, ‘the immigration system is not broken, it is operating exactly how it is supposed to,’” Katz said. “We need to remember what it says on the Statue of Liberty.”

Kashar is an English freshman from Scarsdale, New York. Follow Kashar on Twitter @leahkashar.