January was a good month for compassion and common sense in immigration policy. On the 15th, the Obama administration granted temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants, allowing them to remain in the United States and work legally for 18 months. The beneficiaries will be allowed to do paid work in America without facing legal harassment and may be able to send money home to help rebuild their country and support their families.
A less publicized directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that took effect six days earlier could have a greater impact in the long run. When a victim of persecution abroad seeks safe haven in the United States, the default response has long been to immediately detain him while his asylum claim is considered. The new directive instructs officials to use their power to release asylum seekers into the United States in “the public interest” unless there is a compelling reason to keep them detained. If an alien poses a flight risk or a danger to the community, for example, the government can continue to detain him, but officials will now have to justify such detentions to their superiors.
The public interest exception has rarely been used in the past, resulting in the wholesale detention of people fleeing persecution around the world—more than 10,000 in 2007 alone, for an average of more than 90 days. The group Human Rights First estimates that the United States spent more than $300 million detaining asylum seekers between 2003 and 2009.