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Asylum Seeker Released After Years of Indefinite Detention

Christy Carnegie Fujio, JD, MA, and Jillian Tuck, JD on October 14, 2011

After five years in detention, asylum seeker Glorismel Centeno Ortiz was finally released on September 29 2011. Centeno spent nearly two years in federal custody for criminal charges that were ultimately dismissed and then another three years in immigration detention. Centeno is one of thousands of immigrants that languish indefinitely in detention for years, waiting for the day they will finally be deported or released.

Centeno was 11-years-old when he and his mother fled the brutal violence of the Salvadoran civil war and landed in Los Angeles. As a teenager without much opportunity, Centeno became entangled with gangs and was convicted of armed robbery. Even though his asylum application was still pending, he was deported back to El Salvador. When Centeno returned to LA to reunite with his mother, he sought counseling from Homies Unidos, a non-profit organization that helps young men leave gangs. He reestablished a noble life in the US- volunteering with gang-affected youth, working three jobs, and raising a son. In 2007, after a night out with friends in Tijuana, Centeno was arrested at the border and charged with criminal illegal reentry after deportation. The criminal charges were dismissed in July 2008, but he remained in immigration detention for several years until his release last week.

Although immigration detention is meant to be civil (rather than punitive), the conditions are usually no different than those where convicted felons are held. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) houses the vast majority of immigration detainees in prisons and prison-like facilities. Detained asylum seekers wear prison uniforms and are typically locked up for up to 23 hours a day. They have essentially no outdoor access and often may visit with family only through Plexiglas barriers.

Centeno’s case was complex and took an unacceptable amount of time to wind its way through the justice and immigration systems. The government did not bring criminal charges against him, so he was not convicted of anything, but the government wouldn’t release him for two years. Then he was transferred to immigration detention, where he was denied a bond hearing, the process which determines whether locking someone up is justified, and he languished in immigration detention for another three years. He had no idea as to when or whether he would be released.

Indefinite detention creates a high degree of uncertainty and uncontrollability that manifests in psychological and physical harms. Some of these harms are chronic anxiety and dread, levels of stress that damage immune and nervous systems, depression, suicide, and enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family and community. These health harms are even more debilitating for asylum seekers like Centeno, who have often been traumatized by events in their home countries. The negative psychological and physical effects associated with indefinite detention worsen existing symptoms of trauma and diminish the likelihood that real healing can occur.

Indefinite detention is unconstitutional and should be considered cruel, inhuman treatment for asylum seekers who have already been subjected to persecution. DHS should strictly limit detention of asylum seekers and must do better to ensure that individuals who do not pose a security threat or flight risk have the opportunity to pursue release from detention.

Places: United States