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Religious Leaders Express Shock at Detention Conditions for Asylum Seekers
by Carl R. Baldwin

On April 30, 2001, a group of religious leaders visited the INS detention center run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, near the JFK Airport. What they encountered were “worse than prison” conditions for people who had committed no crime, and whose only offense, arriving at JFK without proper documents, was motivated by the wish to escape persecution at home.

One must give the INS credit for allowing the visit, rather than refusing it. But one must also listen hard to the reactions of the visitors, a group of 22 composed of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders, aides to three Senators, and the representative of a foundation helping to fund pro bono legal services for detained asylum seekers. After visiting the cramped and windowless facility for two hours and interviewing one of the detainees, members of the group were stunned by the harshness of the conditions. One participant reacted this way: “People who commit crimes are put in places like that. But these people haven’t committed any crime. They’re running from conditions we know about, in places like Rwanda and Sierra Leone.” In a statement issued after the visit and directed to a May 3 U.S. Senate Immigration Subcommittee hearing on U.S. asylum policy, the group made its views known:

As representatives of diverse faith traditions that lift up hospitality to the stranger as a fundamental principle, we are deeply troubled by the way our country is treating people who come to our shores fleeing persecution in their homelands. Today, we call upon Congress and the Administration to end policies and practices enacted in 1996, which seriously undermine our nation ’s commitment to refugee protection. We are particularly concerned about the impact of expedited removal and detention on adults and children seeking asylum here.
Postscript: As reported in Interpreter Releases for May 7, 2001, the Senate Subcommittee heard compelling testimony on May 3 from religious leaders, asylum scholars, and asylees. Some of the testimony of hardship and INS abuse appeared to make a strong impression on the Chairman, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who had started the hearing by declaring that he intends to “aggressively promote the proper treatment of those who arrive at our shores seeking freedom from persecution.” This hearing represents an important step forward in making Congress and the President well aware of the hardships that asylum seekers are sometimes made to suffer.

The report on the Wackenhut visit by a participating group is at:

About The Author

Carl R. Baldwin graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1980, and became a member of the New York State Bar a year later. He worked for three years with the New York City Law Department, and then entered solo practice in immigration law, which he has continued to the present. His work with clients has included asylum applications, deportation defense, visa processing, adjustment of status, and naturalization. He has also worked to implement special laws, such as the 1986 "amnesty" (The Immigration Reform and Control Act), and the 1998 Haitian reform act (The Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act). Mr. Baldwin is the author of Immigration News Monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at

He has written a book on immigration law, called "Immigration Questions and Answers," 1997, Allworth Press, 10 East 23rd Street, New York, NY 10010 (212) 777-8395. The book, which contains essential background information about how the immigration law works, can be ordered in both an English Edition and a Spanish version from

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