The U.S Senate Committee on the Judiciary - Subcommittee on Immigration
Oral Statement of Bishop Thomas Wenski
Senate Sub-Committee on Immigration
October 1, 2002
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to testify today. I am Bishop Thomas Wenski, auxiliary Bishop of Miami, and the current chair of the US Conference
of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.
First I would like to thank you and your subcommittee for holding this hearing today. I thank you for your longstanding commitment to immigrants and refugees to this nation. I also would like to thank Senator Brownback for his support of fair access for asylum seekers seeking protection in the United States. Senator Brownback also took time out of his busy schedule to visit with the USCCB's committee on migration several weeks ago.
At that time, Senator Brownback spoke of his concern at the treatment accorded Korean asylum seekers in China. I think today's proceedings might point out some unfortunate parallels between the way China treats North Korean asylum seekers and our own policy towards asylum seekers from Haiti.
Before being ordained a bishop, I worked as a parish priest among the Haitianpopulation in South Florida for almost twenty years. During that time, my pastoral duties included visiting Haitians detained at the INS Krome Processing center. The present policy, which holds a group of 160 Haitian nationals in indefinite detention since December of last year, recalls the ill-fated detention policies of the early 1980's when thousands of Haitians were held in detention at Krome and other places for more than a year until the federal courts forced INS to release them. At that time, USCCB's MRS assisted the government in helping these detainees reunite with family members in the US,seek legal advice and to comply with periodic reporting to INS while their applications for asylum were being processed.
In my work with Haitians in South Florida, I have found them to be hard-working, honest and God-fearing members of our communities. They have
been a positive influence in South Florida and elsewhere. In recent years, Haitian Americans have distinguished themselves in all areas of our community's life and indeed several are elected public officials. In other words, whatever the fears that led to the early policies of the 1980's have not been realized. And so, one must ask why we return to a policy that is unfair and unjust.
§ The present policy is unfair because it signals out Haitians for a disparate treatment. Other groups of asylum seekers similarly situated who arrived on the shores of South Florida are not subjected to indefinite detention. Except for a few cases, nearly all Haitians arriving by sea to Miami have been detained while more than 90% of other nationalities arriving the same way during the same period have been released while they claims are adjudicated.
§ The present policy is unjust for the indefinite detention of asylum seekers erodes refugee rights provided for under international law. In my written statement submitted to the subcommittee the appropriate international laws are cited.
1. As we have done from the mid-1970's, the United States Bishops called for an end to a policy that unfairly and unjustly discriminates against Haitian asylum seekers.
2. Once again, we call for a re-examination of current interdiction policies. Haitians stopped on the high seas or in airports must not be denied the opportunity to request asylum and to be heard fairly.
3. Once again, we can for the reversal of the current policy of indefinite detention of Haitian asylum seekers. Those already found to have met "credible fear" criteria should be immediately released and afforded a reasonable time to secure counsel and petition for asylum.
4. Once again, we offer our assistance to INS in helping to resettle asylum seekers from Haiti while their cases go forward. In the early 1980's when we collaborated with the INS in facilitating the release of Haitians, they reported the whereabouts to INS and appear at their hearings. USCCB's MRS has long collaborated with INS and ORR in helping Haitian and Cuban entrants processed through Krome for over twenty years.
This offers a way that builds upon the successes of the past, that serves the interests of justice, and provides a cost effective alternative to indefinite
I remember how one day in the early 1980's officials from INS in Miami contacted me at my church. They requested that I accompanied them to the home of a woman in Fort Lauderdale. Her son was detained in Krome for several months after arriving from Haiti after a harrowing voyage in a rickety boat.
Fearing for his life, if forcibly deported to Haiti, and despairing of ever leaving the monotony of a then seriously overcrowded facility, he committed suicide in Krome. They asked me to to interpret for them - as they presented their condolences to his mother.
Today whether in Krome, where the men are held, or at the TGK Correctional Facilities, the county jail where the women are held, the present revival of
the old and cruel policy of indefinite detention has recreated those same conditions that breed fear and despair and portend further tragedy.
Mr. Chairman, this is not worthy of the United States of America.