A group of 20 Chaldean Christians who are seeking political asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Iraq under the threat of persecution have been held at the Otay Detention Facility for at least four months and should be released to their families while their cases proceed, activists say.
About 50 members of the local Chaldean community held a vigil and protest outside the jail last week to draw attention to the plight of the asylum seekers, who fled their country out of fear of persecution by the radical group Islamic State.
Mark Arabo, a spokesman for the local Chaldean community and president of the Neighborhood Market Assn., said 20 people in the facility have relatives in San Diego County who are willing to be sponsors, which would allow the asylum seekers to be released pending the resolution of their claims.
"All we're asking for is for them to be released to their families," Arabo said. "Why they aren't being released now, we don't know."
Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said there are 27 Iraqi nationals in ICE custody at the jail, which is run by Corrections Corp. of America under a contract with the government. She could not say how many are Christians.
Arabo said the asylum seekers have been in custody for at least four months — a far longer period than for those who have relatives willing to take them.
"These are people who escaped a Christian genocide only to be detained for months, with little or no hope of being released to their families," Arabo said.
Mack could not provide details on cases because asylum claims are confidential unless the seeker signs a waiver.
In a statement, the agency said decisions on whom to release are made after a review of each case. Several factors — including a person's criminal history, his flight risk, his immigration history and whether he poses a threat to public safety — are all weighed.
"Given ICE's limited detention resources and the agency's policy of holding those who are public safety threats or flight risks, the vast majority of foreign nationals arrested by ICE are, in fact, released under supervision while their cases are pending," the statement said.
But Bardis Vakili, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, said the agency is detaining far too many asylum seekers on "specious" reasons: that they may flee or pose a threat.
He said the agency's policies state that if there is a credible claim of asylum, then the person should be released "as soon as reasonably practical" under supervision. It's unclear how many of the Chaldeans in the Otay facility have had a determination of their asylum status.
Vakili said scores of asylum seekers are languishing in San Diego and Imperial County detention facilities after their claims were denied. He said a better system would be to get seekers to appear in immigration court early on, where a judge could determine who is a risk and who is not, and "triage" the cases. Under current law, if someone is in custody for six months and hasn't seen a judge, he must have a court hearing, Vakili said.