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For Immediate Release

Human Rights Groups File Lawsuit Against DOJ on Detention of Asylum Seekers

Cambridge, Mass. - 12/22/2011

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and eight partner organizations filed a lawsuit today against the US Department of Justice (DOJ) challenging its failure to issue regulations that would give immigration judges the authority to order the release of asylum seekers who are being held in immigration detention facilities.  

In March 2010, PHR and 30 immigrant and human rights organizations submitted a petition requesting the DOJ to issue regulations to permit immigration judges to review the custody of detained asylum seekers. However, over the ensuing 21 months, DOJ has failed to respond to the petition, prompting the groups to file a lawsuit against the agency in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. At present, only agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have the ability to release detained asylum seekers, and their decisions are not reviewable in court.

“Asylum seekers come to the US to escape torture, abuse, and persecution in their own countries. Appallingly, when they arrive at the border and ask for asylum they are locked away in jails, or jail-like detention centers, for indefinite periods of time without the opportunity for a custody hearing before a judge,” said Christy Fujio, Director of PHR’s Asylum Program. “Many of these asylum seekers already suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other physical and emotional trauma as a result of the persecution they endured in their home countries. These preexisting conditions make them especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of long-term and indefinite detention. At the very least, they should be entitled to have an immigration judge determine whether they can safely be released from detention while pursuing their asylum claims.”

While in custody, asylum seekers often do not have access to medical care, including psychological and other specialized treatment for ailments stemming from abuse and torture.  Such detention without appropriate medical care further exacerbates the trauma that asylum seekers endure. 

“Despite Congress’ clear intent to detain asylum seekers only in very limited and specific circumstances, the DOJ has failed in its duty to provide a way for detained asylum seekers to be released from detention while they are going through the asylum process,” said Fujio.

Under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), a party may petition a federal agency for the “issuance, amendment, or repeal of a rule.” The APA further provides that the DOJ respond to a rulemaking petition “within a reasonable time.” PHR and the other organizations joining the lawsuit argue that 21 months is not a “reasonable time” within the meaning of the APA, and are demanding that DOJ issue regulations or explain their refusal to do so.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent organization that uses medicine and science to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. We are supported by the expertise and passion of health professionals and concerned citizens alike.

Since 1986, PHR has conducted investigations in more than 40 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.

  • 1986 — Led investigations of torture in Chile gaining freedom for heroic doctors there
  • 1988 — First to document the Iraqi use of chemical weapons on Kurds providing               evidence for prosecution of war criminals
  • 1996 — Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans and Rwanda to provide evidence for               International Criminal Tribunals
  • 1997 — Shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
  • 2003 — Warned US Policymakers on health and human rights conditions prior to and               during the invasion of Iraq
  • 2004 — Documented genocide and sexual violence in Darfur in support of international               prosecutions
  • 2010 — Investigated the epidemic of violence spread by Burma’s military junta
  • 2011 — Championed the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of               armed conflict and civil unrest during the Arab Spring
  • 2012 — Trained doctors, lawyers, police, and judges in the Democratic Republic of the               Congo, Kenya, and Syria on the proper collection of evidence in sexual               violence cases
  • 2013 — Won first prize in the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention with MediCapt, our               mobile app that documents evidence of torture and sexual violence

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