NEW YORK (AP) -- Thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and torture in their homelands often are treated like prisoners when they reach the United States seeking asylum, a group of religious leaders said.
The ecumenical group called on the government to reform the way it detains such immigrants, many of whom are held for months -- sometimes years -- in detention centers.
''As representatives of diverse faith traditions ... we are deeply troubled by the way our country is treating people who come to our shores fleeing persecution in their homelands,'' said the Rev. Stephen Bouman, bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
At a news conference, representatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights said asylum seekers are held behind bars in small rooms with no windows and with limited recreational space.
Immigration officials say that, because asylum seekers lack valid passports, their identities are usually in question and some could be criminals, terrorists or other potential threats to the United States.
''Once we determine who they are, we have to determine if they are a flight risk and if they are a danger to the community,'' INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said.
Most are processed within a month, but some fall through the cracks, Strassberger said.
The religious leaders said that a country partly founded by immigrants should treat asylum seekers better.
''Let's open our arms and treat these people as human beings,'' said Archdeacon Michael Kendall, of the Episcopal Archdiocese of New York.
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