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Asylum Seeker Released After Years of Indefinite Detention

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

Centeno was 11-years-old when he and his mother fled thebrutal violence of the Salvadoran civil war and landed in Los Angeles. As ateenager without much opportunity, Centeno became entangled with gangs and wasconvicted of armed robbery. Even though his asylum application was stillpending, he was deported back to El Salvador. When Centeno returned to LA toreunite with his mother, he sought counseling from Homies Unidos, a non-profit organizationthat 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. In2007, after a night out with friends in Tijuana, Centeno was arrested at theborder and charged with criminal illegal reentry after deportation. Thecriminal charges were dismissed in July 2008, but he remained in immigration detentionfor several years until his release last week.

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

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

Indefinite detentioncreates a high degree of uncertainty and uncontrollability that manifests inpsychological and physical harms. Some of these harms are chronic anxiety anddread, levels of stress that damage immune and nervous systems, depression, suicide,and enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family andcommunity. These health harms are even more debilitating for asylum seekerslike Centeno, who have often been traumatized by events in their homecountries. The negative psychological and physical effects associated withindefinite detention worsen existing symptoms of trauma and diminish thelikelihood that real healing can occur.

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