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Last month, The New York Times uncovered a confidential United Nations report documenting serious human rights abuses by immigration officials at airports throughout the United States. The report found that airport inspectors intimidated and handcuffed refugees arriving in the United States in search of safe haven and discouraged refugees from seeking political asylum. The report is the latest confirmation of what human rights organizations have been reporting for years: There is an epidemic of abuse by immigration officials that puts all of us — immigrants, refugees and even U.S. citizens — at risk. Two recent lawsuits filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights illustrate the degree to which immigration officials have abused their authority and put refugees in harm’s way. In one case, a Kenyan woman arriving at San Francisco International Airport confided to immigration officials that her life would be in danger if she returned to Kenya. The immigration agent accused the woman of lying, threatened to put her in jail, and forced the woman and her 2-year old daughter to return on the next flight to Kenya. The woman described the experience of being returned as follows: “Coming [to the United States] and being returned [to Kenya] to me was like being taken out of a burning house and my life saved, and then being pushed back in there.” In another case, a young woman who had fled Zimbabwe was handcuffed, jailed and strip-searched after arriving at SFO. She was then forced to return to Zimbabwe by an immigration agent, who complained about “these people from Africa” and said, “We won’t allow these people here — not after Sept. 11. Go back to the jungle.” Tragically, these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Human rights organizations have documented other incidents in which arriving asylum-seekers were wrongfully deported, never to be heard from again. These egregious incidents stem from a policy change in U.S. immigration law enacted in the mid-1990s. “Expedited removal” empowers immigration officials at airports and ports of entry to deport arriving international passengers without any independent review of those decisions by a judge. By eliminating judicial oversight and accountability, our government invited abuse. By 2000, a nationwide study by researchers at Hastings College of the Law found that immigration officials were wrongfully accusing immigrants and U.S. citizens of being in the country unlawfully and illegally detaining and jailing international passengers. In San Francisco alone, misconduct by immigration officials at SFO resulted in the government paying more than $200,000 in settlements to two individuals represented by the LCCR — a U.S. citizen who was shackled to a chair for hours because immigration officials refused to believe that she was a U.S. citizen, and a Nicaraguan tourist who was jailed for two nights because the immigration agent refused to believe that she, a Latina, had a valid tourist visa. The most disturbing cases of abuse have involved immigration officials’ forced return of refugees who fled persecution and torture in their native countries. In 2000, a report from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights found that refugees fleeing ethnic violence, religious persecution, rape, torture and political oppression had been wrongly turned away by airport inspectors. Even the General Accounting Office found, in 1998 and 2000, that in as many as one in five cases immigration officials at airports and ports of entry had failed to follow procedures that were designed to ensure that refugees were not wrongfully returned. Despite the mounting evidence of abuse and an increasing number of lawsuits, the situation is about to get even worse. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced the latest scheme to deprive immigrants and refugees of their due-process rights. Administration officials declared that immigration officials would be empowered to deport immigrants found within 100 miles of the border, without any independent review of these decisions. Lawful immigrants, refugees and even U.S. citizens (at least those who “look like” immigrants) are now subject to being jailed and summarily removed from the country if they are found within 100 miles of our borders. History teaches us that when the actions of government officials are shielded from public scrutiny, abuses of power inevitably follow. In our system of government, judicial oversight of the government’s actions is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Yet, in the name of national security, our government once again seeks to strip individuals of their fundamental rights and seeks to prevent courts from exercising their constitutionally mandated role. Until procedural safeguards and judicial review are restored by the government, all of us are at risk. So think twice before you board an international flight. And watch out if you’re within 100 miles of the border. Philip Hwang is a staff attorney who coordinates the asylum program for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].

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