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Did you see the two detention stories in USA Today today?

April 02, 2009 - Posted by Mario Moreno

In the same issue of USA Today, we have the Associated Press reporting on immigrant detention conditions, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, defends the current detention system for immigrants in a letter to the editor.  It is a curious juxtaposition.


AP reports:


Immigrants held by the federal government are being detained in a squalid basement where conditions are foul-smelling and dirty, a civil rights group said in a lawsuit.


Upward of 200 detainees are at times crammed into temporary holding rooms in the basement of a downtown federal building, with as many as 60 immigrants in each room, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed a lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement late Wednesday.


Then in his letter responding to an earlier USA Today editorial which raised questions about immigration detention policies that have seen U.S. citizens detained, Rep. Smith writes,


Individuals who broke our laws to come here illegally will not automatically comply with our laws after they are caught and ordered to leave. We cannot afford to pretend they will…The U.S. immigration detention system works and serves a useful purpose.


So the senior Republican in charge of U.S. immigration policy is proud of the immigration detention system, which has expanded faster than any other incarceration system in our history, including the expansion of incarceration associated with the war on drugs (and we know how well that’s working out).


Rep. Smith discounts the probability of U.S. citizens being wrongly detained, essentially arguing that because immigrants lie, we need to hold all people until they can prove they are citizens (a deft reversal of “innocent until proven guilty”).


He also says USA Today’s editorial “ignores the fact that immigration detention is critical to enforcing U.S. laws.”  True enough; there is a need to detain and deport some people, especially violent, hardened criminals who pose a threat to the community.


But even if you want hardened criminals to serve hard time under duress, it seems we are giving the same treatment to people fleeing religious, ethnic, political or racial persecution and violence awaiting their asylum cases to be heard (in our horribly backed-up judicial system, which Rep. Smith also helps oversee).


The Associated Press goes on:


Detainees end up in the basement for a range of reasons. Some are in the country illegally, while others arrived with a visa and overstayed, or are claiming asylum. Some are felons fighting deportation after completing prison terms.


The holding rooms typically contain one or two non-private toilets, one sink and no soap or sanitary products, the ACLU said, and conditions are foul-smelling and dirty.


ACLU attorney Marisol Orihuela said sometimes women who are menstruating are denied sanitary supplies and some immigrants were denied access to their medicine.


"The conditions are absolutely horrid and inhumane," Orihuela said.


Rep. Smith, with as much of a straight face as we can muster, we wish you plenty of good luck in defending America’s immigration detention system, the status quo of detention conditions and procedures, and the underlying immigration laws that the system is meant to enforce.  Like the jobs many immigrants have themselves, Rep. Smith’s job of defending the current system and fighting efforts to reform it is probably one of the hardest jobs in America.

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