From The Progress Report
Yesterday, the Obama administration embarked on a serious effort to fixone of President Bush's most catastrophic post-9/11 enterprises: the U.S. immigration detention system. In an effort to appear tough on immigration, Bush created a web of federal centers, state and county lockups, and for-profit prisons that came to constitute a multi-billion dollar "patchwork" of detention cells that continue to plague the already broken immigration system. Human rights violations soared, civil liberties were routinely ignored, and in 2008, the Washington Post reported that at least 83 immigrants had died in detention. Last week, immigration advocates and legal activists were deeply disappointed when the Obama administration rejected a petition last month to enactlegally enforceable immigration detention rules, which would have guaranteed detainees' access to basic health care, telephones, and lawyers. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimedthat such "rule-making would be laborious, time-consuming and less flexible." But, yesterday's decision to reform the detention system by centralizing authority and expanding federal oversight is one step forward in addressing what has become a "human rights nightmare."
JAILED WITHOUT JUSTICE: Astudy released last week based on inspection reports by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the American Bar Association, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that the U.S. detention system is "broken to its core" and concluded that the U.S. government has failed to comply with its own immigrant detention standards, which include visitation rights and basic telephone access. Earlier this year, Amnesty International released an alarming report, "Jailed Without Justice," documenting the massive civil rights violations endured by approximately 33,000 detainees -- including asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of U.S. citizen children who are detained for breaking civil, not criminal, laws. Amnesty found that some U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were accidentally detained for months to years before they were able to prove that they were not "deportable."After suffering five years of torture and imprisonment in an Albanian concentration camp, one legal immigrant spent another four years locked up in aU.S. detention center fighting his deportation. Eighty-four percent of detainees are unable to obtain necessary legal assistance because individuals inU.S. deportation proceedings have only the "privilege" to secure counsel, which means those who cannot afford a lawyer will not be appointed one at the cost of the government. Amnesty International also indicated that detainees have a hard time accessing timely -- if any -- medical treatment, which has led to dozens of controversial detainee deaths.The Washington Post has reported a series of troubling abuses, including "health problems misdiagnosed or ignored, detainees injected with psychotropic drugs to make them easier to transport, [and] suicides that could have been prevented." Just last Friday, several detainees being held in a Louisiana center declared a hunger strike, following unanswered complaints about rats, mosquitoes, flies, and no access to soap or toothpaste for over a week.
BETTER BUT STILL BROKEN: In response to many of these criticisms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) head John Morton has announced that his agency will implement reforms that move away from the "decentralized, jail-oriented approach" of the Bush administration with the goal of bringing "improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence, and ICE oversight" to theU.S. detention system. One of the more meaningful measures ICE has taken is the termination of family detention at the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, TX, which has been singled out for its "gross neglect and mistreatment" ofchild and infant detainees. Additionally, ICE will create an Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP) which will be in charge of designing a "new detention system" and will work with the Office of Detention Oversight which is set to conduct more frequent inspections and review complaints and grievances. Morton is also assigning 23 detention managers to the largest detention centers in an effortto swiftly boost federal oversight. ICE plans on hiring an expert in health care administration and a detention management expert to staff the ODPP, along with a medical expert to independently review medical complaints. To help enforce current standards, ICE has proposed the formation of two advisory groups of local and national organizations that will provide feedback and input directly to Morton. "Pro-immigrant watchdogs" like Human Rights First, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center have applauded these efforts, but the organizations have been quick to point out that the administration "failed to address a number of critical holes in the current system," most notably the lack of enforceable standards forbasic conditions and due process procedures. But none of these reforms will do much to address the approximately $1.7 billion taxpayers contribute each year to detain thousands of nonviolent immigrants.
SEARCH FOR A PERMANENT SOLUTION: Last week, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced the "Protect Citizens from Unlawful Detention Act" and "Strong STANDARDS Act," which would require the DHS Secretary to issue minimum detention standards pertaining to medical care, access to telephones, the treatment of vulnerable populations, and the use of force. The Secretary would also have to issue rules regarding enforcement, report detainee deaths, and appoint a Detention Commission responsible for investigations and compliance reporting. The fate of these two bills is tenuous at best. However, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) believes that he will have a comprehensive immigration reform bill ready by Labor Day. Schumer has said his proposed reform will encourage legal immigration with the inclusion of a path to legalization for the undocumented and a more realistic visa system. Hopes are high that Schumer's bill will pass and establish a functioningimmigration system that's supported by humane enforcement mechanisms that will eliminate the need to spend billions of dollars on the detention of thousands ofharmless individuals interminably stuck in legal limbo.