Aicha Garba will never forget how a US immigration officer yelled at her as she stood in Newark International Airport, trying to explain why she fled her native country in Africa.
For the next five months, in accord with US immigration law, she was "detained" pending a hearing on whether she should be granted asylum in the United States.
Today, two human rights groups are releasing reports that criticize detainment conditions for women asylum-seekers and and immigrant children. Across the country, the reports charge, the US is confining hundreds of these illegal foreigners in detention centers that house criminals, and frequently denies them adequate legal help, health care, or access to family or friends. In some cases, they say, the immigrants suffer verbal and physical abuse.
The reports underscore the dilemma facing the INS as, each year, it weeds through tens of thousands of immigrants who seek asylum based on fears of persecution if returned to their homelands. Asylum seekers number only a fraction of foreigners who enter the country illegally.
Ms. Garba, who says she fled Togo in February 1996 to escape a forced marriage and a tribal rite of female genital mutilation, struggles to understand why she was strip-searched and confined alone to a small room for five days. For five months, she languished at another prison in Pennsylvania, she says, sleeping all day and too depressed to eat.
"All I was doing was fighting for my life," Garba said in a phone interview from Philadelphia, where the young woman has been released to the custody of her lawyer. "Anytime I woke up, it was just to cry. I was asking myself, what did I do? I didn't do anything bad to anybody. Why am I here?"
One of the new reports, by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, says women like Garba have been held from months to years in county jails that are unsupervised by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
"What we found is a pretty atrocious example of the United States not abiding by its own law and really abusing women who have come here to find safety and refuge," says Mary Diaz, commission director.
Another group, Human Rights Watch, charged the government with holding hundreds of immigrant children, some as young as eight, in "prison-like conditions," with juvenile delinquents, and without interpreters, legal help, or access to phones. It called on the INS to delegate responsibility for minors to child-welfare agencies, a request the agency says would require changes in federal law. An INS spokeswoman denies that any children have been mistreated in US custody.
The reports surface less than two weeks after the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act came into effect. The law allows officers to immediately deport anyone entering the United States with false or no documents who fails to demonstrate a "credible fear" of persecution, and to jail those whose cases will later be heard by an immigration judge.
"The new law gives the INS a broad mandate to detain everybody who comes without documents. The people most likely not to have them are those who can't get them because their governments tortured or jailed them," says Elisa Massimino of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "The people who are most likely to be misunderstood or afraid ... are exactly those people we most want to protect."
But Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, says the law protects refugee rights while addressing rampant abuses by tens of thousands of illegal aliens who have claimed persecution and then "did not appear for subsequent hearings."
"This law will actually shorten the average length of detention by promptly removing those with no legitimate claims," he says.
INS spokesman Russ Bergeron says authorities are dealing with "individuals who start out lying about who they are." He adds, "When an individual shows up with a counterfeit document, the service has to be confident that the person is who he says he is [before he can be freed] and [is] not a threat to society."
But Ms. Diaz says women and children do not pose such problems. Under current law, asylum seekers can be released to a responsible party if an officer determines they have a "credible fear." Advocates, however, claim the system is applied arbitrarily.
Garba, meanwhile, awaits a June 20 asylum hearing. Her chances may be buoyed by a precedent-setting immigration ruling last June in a case involving a countrywoman. In that case, an INS board found fear of genital mutilation "can be the basis for a grant of asylum."