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Pedal to the Mettle

Baltimore Man Bikes Across State to Help Asylum-Seekers Detained in Maryland County Jails

By Jamil Roberts | Posted 3/12/2003

Throngs of well-wishers gathered on South Broadway last Wednesday, as 30-year-old Zachary Dziedzic strapped on his helmet and cycling shoes to take a 450-mile bike ride for freedom.

Dziedzic, a legal representative employed by Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services, left last week to make a five-day trek from Baltimore to Snow Hill to raise awareness about the plight of political-asylum-seeking immigrants held in Maryland detention centers. He stopped along the way at churches, colleges, and universities to meet with local immigrant families and human-rights advocacy groups concerned about the issue.

"I identify with immigrants because I remember what it's like to be a stranger," says Dziedzic, a former military brat who has spent half his life overseas. His experiences living in places such as El Salvador and South Korea have fueled his passion for defending individuals seeking asylum. Now Dziedzic helps immigrants by representing asylum seekers in Maryland's immigration courts.

He has developed a great appreciation of America through his work with immigrants, Dziedzic says. Many of the people he represents were freedom fighters and revolutionaries before they reached U.S. shores.

Asylum seekers often spend years in prisons and jails across the country that contract with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, though the overwhelming majority are never charged with any crime. They wait until the United States hears their cases and decides whether or not to grant them the politically protected status they seek. Although the INS will not release specific information on how many refugees are held in U.S. detention centers, Dziedzic estimates that 300 people seeking asylum are detained each year in Maryland at the Wicomico, Dorchester, St. Mary's, and Worcester county detention centers.

The former INS--which, on March 1, was split into the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--has sent refugees to remote Maryland county jails since 1996. The practice is cost-effective for the BCIS, which pays anywhere from $41 to $75 per day per detainee to the detention centers, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees, a nonprofit organization that defends the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons worldwide. It's also profitable for the jails, the organization says, because the money they receive from the BCIS is higher--sometimes double--what they would receive from the state to house a regular inmate. But the system is a hassle and a financial burden for lawyers defending asylum seekers (many of whom do so on a pro bono basis), since most of the detention centers are far from the immigration courts in Baltimore City.

Until the mid-1970s, political asylum in the United States was reserved only for high-profile individuals who sought protection from persecution in their native countries. U.S. policies relaxed in the '80s and '90s to accommodate the influx of Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran refugees who fled their countries to escape death squads. The INS could not process asylum applications fast enough to keep up with the requests, so many immigrants began crossing U.S. borders without the proper documentation. As a result, Congress implemented immigration reform in 1996 that stated that immigrants who arrive in the United States without appropriate documentation would be detained until a U.S. Immigration Court decided on their case. Those whose cases are approved are granted asylum; those whose cases are not approved are deported.

Dziedzic says many of the detainees in Maryland county jails dread being returned to their own countries because they have been tortured, imprisoned, or threatened by their governments. They come to the United States only to face further punishment. They may spend months or years in detention centers where they experience culture shock, language barriers, and the ugliness of the American corrections system.

To make matters worse, Dziedzic says, whatever documentation the detainees do bring with them to the United States is withheld while they await their hearings. Even the lawyers defending them have difficulty accessing the documents, though for many the information would be useful in building a sound legal case for asylum. Dziedzic believes that less than half of the people who deserve asylum are not getting it because of barriers such as this in U.S. immigration legislation. Those who are lucky enough to obtain a lawyer are more likely to win asylum, he says, but most have no money, no resources, and little chance of winning their cases.

"We need more resources so that we can take in more people," says Dziedzic, who says his office gets numerous requests for representation, though it can only handle two to four detentions cases per year. He says that turning people down is often the hardest part of his job.

Dziedzic's modest goal for the bike trip he embarked on last week was to raise a few thousand dollars to help asylum seekers, and to spread the word about their imprisonment. He says that many detainees, despite their imprisonment in the United States, continue to believe in freedom and democracy. He says they hold out hope that they may one day be granted the asylum they seek--that hope is what inspired him to get on his bike last Wednesday.

"They are amazing people who have sacrificed a lot because of their beliefs," Dziedzic says. "It would be nice to have them in our community."

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