Quiet Constructions in the War on Terror: Subjecting Asylum Seekers to Unnecessary Detention

By Welch, Michael | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Quiet Constructions in the War on Terror: Subjecting Asylum Seekers to Unnecessary Detention


Welch, Michael, Social Justice


Introduction

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States HAS RESPONDED to the threat of terrorism with legislation that arms the government with greater powers over citizens and non-citizens. Many features of the war on terror have proven controversial since they undermine individual freedoms, civil liberties, and human rights (Cole, 2003; Parenti, 2003). Among the measures that have drawn considerable concern is the arbitrary use of detention of foreign nationals. Detention is among the gravest acts the state can take against people, especially if for long periods of time. The seriousness increases if persons are held not on criminal or immigration charges, but rather after fleeing persecution. This article dwells on how asylum seekers entering the U.S. are being subjected to unnecessary detention in harsh conditions of confinement. The unjust detention of foreign nationals has drawn considerable public attention, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks (Human Rights Watch, 2002; Talvi, 2003a, 2003b), yet the plight of asylum seekers in a post-September 11 world has been neglected.

Between September 11, 2001, and December 2003, more than 15,300 asylum seekers were detained at U.S. airports and borders. From the port of entry, asylum seekers are transported to jail, often in handcuffs, and usually without any clear understanding of why they are being detained. Asylum seekers are legally eligible for parole if they satisfy the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) criteria (i.e., community ties, no risk to the community, and that identity can be established). However, in practice, even asylum seekers who meet those criteria remain in detention (Asylum Protection News, 2004). Immigration officials too often ignore or selectively apply the parole criteria, which exist in guideline form rather than as formal regulations. Compounding matters, when an asylum seeker's parole request is denied by DHS officials, they have no meaningful recourse; they cannot appeal the decision to an independent authority, or even an immigration judge (Asylum Protection News, 2003c; Jones, 2003; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 2004). (1)

As this article reveals, detaining asylum seekers is not an effective antiterrorist tactic. Its continued use, however, prompts sociological questions over why such policies and practices persist. The detention of asylum seekers suggests that certain aspects of the war on terror serve more to control immigration than to control crime, producing an array of human rights predicaments. Along with key human rights reports, this work looks at government rhetoric on national security that is used to justify blatant violations of international law written to protect persons fleeing persecution. The discussion briefly reviews quiet constructions and their role in formulating government policies and practices for the confinement of those seeking asylum.

Quiet Constructions

In the realm of social constructionism, a sociological framework aimed at revealing the nature of claims making, differences remain between the "strong" or "strict" constructionists and those regarded as "weak" or "contextual" (Cohen, 2002). The former insists that there are nothing but constructs, with a sociologist just one among many claims makers. Attempting to offer a more objective view, the latter proposes that a sociologist can (and should) issue reality checks while detecting and documenting exaggeration. In doing so, a sociologist unveils the social construction process, but is committed to understanding and resolving social problems. Further refining these approaches, Cohen distinguishes between noisy and quiet constructions. As the name suggests, high levels of public, political, and media attention accompany noisy constructions. Quiet constructions typically emerge in more muted forms in which the claims makers are professionals, government officials, and bureaucrats operating in an organization with little or no public or media exposure. …

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