When did the "land of the free" become "the land preventing freedom"?

December 14, 2009

 The Restore Fairness Campaign  recently posted a video describing the horrific plight of Esmeralda.

Esmeralda: A Transgender Detainee Speaks Out from Breakthrough on Vimeo.

Esmeralda, a transgender asylum seeker from Mexico who came to the United States seeking protection and liberty found herself in immigration detention, in conditions as terrifying as those she was attempting to flee.   Upon arrival at the US border, Esmeralda applied for asylum on the basis of persecution because of her identity as a transgendered person.  Like all asylum seekers seeking protection at US borders, Esmeralda was put into immigration detention. 

There was no reason to think she was a security threat.   There was no reason to think she was a flight risk.  She did not try to escape.  She did not cause trouble in the detention center. 

But according to her testimony: 
She was segregated. 
She was discriminated against. 
She was threatened. 
She was sexually abused and forced to perform oral sex on a prison guard. 

Even more horrifying is that Esmeralda’s experience of being detained at the border while trying to seek asylum was not an anomaly .  By law, all asylum seekers who arrive at the US border and declare that they intend to apply for asylum are immediately placed into detention, in jails all over the US.  When did the American ideal of providing a safe haven for the persecuted and oppressed really come to mean that we place persons fleeing even the most horrific persecution in detention facilities like prisoners with disregard for the often physically and psychologically traumatic situations that they have fled?

Esmeralda’s story ends on a more positive note—she was released from detention and now works as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. The Obama administration has committed to a more humane immigration detention system, and releasing asylum seekers from detention who pose no danger to the US is an important benchmark for reform.  Legislation introduced in the House and Senate provides this consideration.   Until law and policy are changed, however, Esmeralda and courageous immigrants and asylum seekers like her serve as a voice for the tens of thousands behind bars.

Joanna B. Hurlburt contributed to this post.