In defying DHS directive and federal judge’s order, agency's parole denials intensify life and death stakes for thousands of asylum seekers
WASHINGTON – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and ACLU of Louisiana today filed a motion for contempt in their federal class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the New Orleans Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Office challenging ICE’s unlawful denial of release on parole to detained asylum seekers.
The motion, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to hold ICE in contempt for its failure to comply with the Court’s September 2019 injunction ordering the agency to fully restore the humanitarian parole process across the five states under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans ICE Field Office.
“The government’s flagrant defiance of a federal judge’s order mirrors the authoritarian governments that many of these asylum seekers fled,” said Mich Gonzalez, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “Instead of having found safety in the U.S., asylum seekers are again fighting injustice – this time at the hands of the U.S government, and from behind bars in fatal detention camps. ICE relinquished their responsibility to comply with DHS’s Parole Directive and we seek to hold them accountable for their inaction that has real life and death stakes for those who they carelessly confine.”
New parole grant rate numbers provided to the Court from ICE reveal that the Field Office is still falling well below its historical precedent of grant rates and appears to be on a downward trend. Since the Court’s 2019 order, attorneys still liken the parole process to a “lottery system,” noting that parole proceedings remain sporadic and inconsistent, and the process leaves applicants in the dark for months on end.
“The latest numbers from ICE confirm what we already knew about ICE and the government defendants: That they have been disregarding Judge Boasberg’s order brazenly, and apparently never had any intention of complying or providing our clients with the due process to which they are entitled,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana.
“I was forced to flee Cuba due to persecution at the hands of the Cuban police,” describes one asylum seeker, identified as Y.P.T., who’s been detained at different remote Louisiana facilities for 11 months. “By patiently waiting for three months at the US-Mexico border until my number was called to present myself at the port of entry, I feel that I have shown that I am committed to following all legal procedures asked of me."
In a declaration filed with the suit, Y.P.T. describes the toll that his needless detention has taken on him and his bewilderment after his thorough parole applications were denied, sometimes with no explanation. His experience underscores a brutal and inhumane immigration system that needlessly confines asylum seekers with civil immigration matters.
“Bossier was a living hell," Y.P.T. said. "There, I experienced psychological and physical mistreatment. Officials withheld information, they yelled at us, and they put us in solitary confinement without just cause.”
The contempt action is a major development in the lawsuit challenging the Field Office’s blanket parole denial policy that has left thousands of asylums seekers languishing in ICE prisons throughout the Deep South despite having followed asylum procedures at the border and having met the legal criteria for release on parole, pursuant to DHS’s own 2009 Parole Directive.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarian parole stands as one of the most obvious forms of relief readily available to thousands of asylum seekers that remain trapped in detention centers that are now COVID-19 hotspots.
As doctors and public health experts universally call for the release of people from dangerous and crowded prisons, ICE continues to recklessly detain more than 5,000 asylum seekers that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) determined to have established a persecution claim or torture claim. ICE never had cause to confine the asylum seekers in their immigration prisons in the first place.
“Especially since the coronavirus pandemic began, I worry every day about my survival," said Y.P.T., who has hypertension, a preexisting condition that greatly heightens the risk of severe COVID-19 complications. "I have seen the ways that ICE puts our lives in jeopardy. Without any apparent regard for the potential human consequences, ICE continues to transfer immigrants between facilities both with and without confirmed cases of the virus.”