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Blog: Promise of Better Detention Conditions Must Be Followed by Action

March 01, 2012 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom

In America, we believe that all people should be treated fairly and with dignity. We believe the government is accountable for the wellness of anyone who is under its watch. This week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released upgraded immigration detention standards that would hopefully move the government closer to fulfilling its obligation and its promise to provide safety, dignity and fairness in the immigration detention system.

The most recent set of detention standards provide common-sense fixes to some of the most serious problems of immigrant detention. For example, under pressure to address incidents of substandard medical care at detention facilities ICE uses to hold immigrants—more than 100 immigrants have died in ICE custody since 2003—the new standards require that medical service requests be received and triaged by medical personnel within 24 hours.

Timely medical assistance may have saved the life of Hiu Liu Ng, a Chinese immigrant who complained of severe back pain to guards in a Central Falls, R.I., detention facility but was denied access to medical care. He died four months later while in ICE’s custody. At the time of his death, he had a fractured spine and his body was riddled with a cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for several months.

In addition to improved medical standards, the new detention standards also institute a sexual assault response team to help victims of sexual abuse access proper medical, crisis intervention and mental health services. These teams come not a moment too soon. According to the ACLU, since 2007, more than 180 sexual abuse complaints were reported in immigration detention centers. But this number may barely scratch the surface; experts believe that the real incidence of sexual abuse is much greater because of unreported cases. Immigrants in detention are extremely vulnerable to abuse, thanks to language barriers and because they often fear that if they report the abuse, they will be deported in retaliation.

The revised detention standards are an important step for ICE to make good on its promise of bringing accountability and safety to our nation’s immigration detention system. However, as positive as these standards may be, they are not yet in effect in any detention facilities. As long as detention facilities fail to implement these upgraded standards, there will be no improvement in the detention conditions that our approximately 33,000 immigration detainees experience each day.

Furthermore, the new changes won’t address the fundamental contradiction of immigration detention centers operating like correctional institutions. Our immigration detention system is supposed to serve a limited purpose — to ensure that individuals comply with deportation proceedings, separate from the punitive function of the criminal justice system.

In 2009, the Obama Administration promised to make detention “a truly civil” system, with appropriate conditions for asylum seekers and immigrant detainees who pose no threat to public safety and are not a flight risk. Yet despite the administration’s good intentions, facilities that contract with ICE are not legally bound to comply with ICE’s detention standards, and violations of the standards often occur without consequences. In fact, many facilities have not even implemented the 2008 detention standards. Let’s hope that this time around, ICE’s good plans are followed by real action.

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