The US asylum system is under major construction. With hopes of rebuilding and restoring a fair, humane and credible asylum system, the Biden Administration has encountered some initial challenges. As we think about these challenges in the context of Black Immigrant Advocacy Week, the roadblocks in the path to protection for asylum seekers are cause for great concern. The deportation and attempted deportation of hundreds of immigrants from Haiti, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and other Caribbean and African countries provide a recent, stark example of how policies impact Black asylum-seekers.

What are the risks of detention and deportation for Black immigrants? 

On account of systemic racism and rampant racial profiling, Black immigrants are at disproportionate risk of ICE detention and deportation. They face particularly egregious conditions in the U.S. immigration enforcement system, as evidenced by reports of physical abuse. Black immigrants are also six times more likely to experience solitary confinement in ICE detention. The risk is further compounded by ICE’s lack of adherence to public health guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in an estimated 20 percent of the population detained by ICE testing positive. 

Olga Byrne, Director of U.S. Immigration for the International Rescue Committee said:

“The IRC has heard first-hand from our clients in detention and staff that ICE may be operating in an extrajudicial capacity, threatening immigrants and asylum-seekers of color in particular. These reports of unfair and inhumane treatment toward Black immigrants cast a shadow over the Biden administration's commitment to restoring humanity and protection to the immigration system. 

“The IRC has published a step-by-step roadmap for the much-needed reform of the US asylum system, including ensuring universal representation for asylum-seekers otherwise subject to violations of due process and other basic legal standards. Ensuring the right to counsel - as well as finding alternatives to a detention-centric asylum system - is absolutely essential to creating a safe, legal, and fair immigration system for some of the world’s most vulnerable. 

“With the Department of Homeland Security under new leadership with Alejandro Mayorkas, the IRC calls for a robust review of DHS and ICE policies, with an eye to continuing to end detrimental and discriminatory policies that were particularly pervasive in the previous administration and rebuilding an asylum system based on protection, humanity, and the rule of law.” 

What impact does legal representation have on case outcomes?

Noncitizens subject to removal are not entitled to government-appointed legal representation - even when this increases their chance of a positive outcome in immigration court by a factor of ten. As a result, an asylum-seeker with a strong claim for asylum who follows every letter of the law can still end up with a removal order. Because asylum rejection rates are on the rise, access to legal counsel for them can signify the difference between life and potential risk of death if deported.

Kayla Moore, the IRC’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) program Staff Attorney, who represents immigrants in ICE detention, said:

“On a daily basis, I see new examples of how the immigration system is designed to trip our clients, including asylum-seekers, every step of the way. Non-citizens facing deportation are often forced to navigate the complexities of immigration law alone--making life or death decisions about their case on the spot, in a language they don’t understand, with no meaningful access to legal support. They are expected to build their case while locked in detention, with no knowledge of what documents are needed or how to obtain them.”

“The US immigration system is detention-centric because it assumes immigrants are guilty until proven innocent; that's why they often have to wait for months in detention until their claims are heard. Justification for ICE detention is further based on the myth that immigrants do not show up to court hearings. This was proven false recently through an analysis of US Government data revealing that an overwhelming majority of non-detained individuals attend their immigration court hearings. The immigration system is punitive: even if you do everything right by your case but still receive a removal order, ICE may opt to detain you for months with no explanation before deporting you without informing your lawyer.” 

What is the IRC doing to help?  

The SAFE Network comprises of publicly-funded deportation defense programs across 11 states and 21 jurisdictions nationwide, including the IRC in Dallas. In addition to providing direct legal representation to detained and non-detained immigrants, the IRC has joined advocates and legal service providers around the country to call for universal representation: a public defender model in which all noncitizens, regardless of income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system, are entitled to legal representation in immigration court. The Biden Administration and other lawmakers can ensure due process and fairness for all non-citizens, including asylum seekers, by prioritizing universal representation.