Asylum rules to change

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Asylum seekers in the US sometimes have to spend up to a year in an immigration detention facility. But the US government is changing that policy ? starting next week, asylum seekers could be immediately eligible for supervised release. Correspondent Monica Ortiz Uribe has the story.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark and this is The World. People who fear for their lives because of political, religious or racial persecution in their home country sometimes seek asylum in the United States. But the process can be trying. Asylum seekers can spend anywhere from two weeks to a year in an immigration detention facility while they await approval of their petition. That's going to change on January 4th according to the Department of Homeland Security. From El Paso, Texas Monica Ortiz Uribe reports on the revised policy.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: Under the new system foreigners who come to the United States seeking asylum will automatically be considered for supervised release into the country. Currently asylum seekers must submit a formal request in writing to be considered for release. It's a small change but the impact is great.

CARLOS SPECTOR: This is a real welcome change I think that has been long coming.

MONICA: Carlos Spector is an immigration attorney in El Paso, Texas. He's highly critical of the current policy. Right now he has a total of ten clients who want asylum. They include a couple of teachers, a lawyer, and a police officer. All are Mexican nationals fleeing circumstances related to the unprecedented levels of drug related violence in their country. Spector says that asylum seekers have already endured incredible hardship once they arrive in the United States. To detain them he says only adds to their trauma.

SPECTOR: This is a very unique area of immigration law that incorporates international human rights standards for dealing with people who have been tortured, have been victims of assassinations or kidnappings, and we have to treat them very, very differently says the law and our humanity.

MONICA: Spector's most visible client is Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez Soto. Gutierrez, a newspaper reporter from a small town in the northern state of Chihuahua says his life was threatened by the Mexican Army after he wrote articles criticizing the military. He and his 15-year-old son fled to a US port of entry in New Mexico in the summer of 2008 and asked for asylum.

EMILIO GUTIERREZ SOTO: [SPANISH]

TRANSLATOR: And from that moment we were left in the hands of immigration authorities. My son was detained for two months in one location, and I was detained for seven months in a different facility.

MONICA: Gutierrez's son was allowed to stay with relatives in New Mexico after his release. Gutierrez himself was released in January after his lawyer submitted the necessary paperwork.

GUTIERREZ: [SPANISH]

TRANSLATOR: It was a very painful and sad process because my son and I were separated.

MONICA: With the change in policy asylum seekers will presumably have a good chance of avoiding such an experience. But they can still be detained temporarily while their petition is approved and all new arrivals will be screened for security purposes before they are released. Laticia Zamarripa is spokeswoman for US Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE.

LATICIA ZAMARRIPA: Now this doesn't mean that all asylum seekers will be released, because ICE will still review their cases on a case-by-case basis. And if they pose say a security threat, some type of a public safety danger to the community then they won't, they won't be released, they will remain detained for the duration of their process.

MONICA: Those who are released will also be monitored by ICE agents. The new system isn't officially in effect yet but attorney Carlos Spector says he's already seen some change. Spector says that two weeks ago a radio journalist from Ciudad Juarez directly across the border from El Paso came to the international bridge seeking asylum along with four members of his family. After an initial interview with immigration officials all but one were released. Gutierrez the newspaper reporter who sought asylum last year thinks the new policy will encourage more people who may be considering asylum to actually go through with it.

SPECTOR: [SPANISH]

TRANSLATOR: I think it's an opportunity for hundreds of families to seek help in the United States without ever having to set foot in an immigration prison.

MONICA: The new policy isn't limited to asylum seekers entering the US from Mexico. The change applies to any asylum seeker at any port of entry starting January 4th. For The World, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso, Texas.