National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Deteriorating detention system: Yet another reason to fix immigration

July 30, 2009 - Posted by Katherine Vargas

Death by Detention (Racial Justice and Immigrant Rights) from Breakthrough on Vimeo.

As Congress gets ready for action on immigration reform legislation —as soon as Labor Day— new reports and government actions this week underscore the urgent need to revamp the broken and highly costly immigration detention system.


Administration continues down the path of failed detention policies


Hoping to introduce oversight and accountability in the immigration detention system, immigrant advocates have petitioned the government, for more than two years, to provide legally enforceable detention rules. The lack of regulations on detention centers has resulted in countless complaints of deplorable medical care, detainee abuse and inadequate access to phones and attorneys. Now, a month after federal judge Denny Chin ordered the Obama administration to respond to the plaintiff’s petition, the government has formally refused to issue detention regulations citing that establishing new rules would be too burdensome. The New York Times reports on the disappointment felt by many advocates, who see this action as “more of the same” failed policies of the Bush administration:


The government’s decision “disregards the plight of the hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees,” said Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the plaintiffs, which contends that the lack of enforceable rules is at the heart of persistent problems of mistreatment and medical neglect. “The department has demonstrated a disturbing commitment to policies that have cost dozens of lives.”


“This whole detention system that has been created is a human rights nightmare,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The past administration created this, and now we need to dismantle it.”


U.S. Rejects Calls for Immigration Detention Rules, July 29, 2009


Report shows government doesn’t follow its own meager standards


The government decision to not issue enforceable detention regulations comes right as the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the ACLU of Southern California, and the international law firm of Holland & Knight, LLP releases the first national detention standards report. The report was based on inspection records of facilities by ICE between 2001 and 2005 and sheds light on the inadequate standards of the immigration detention system. According to the report’s press statement:


“Though the detainees are accused of civil immigration charges, there is nothing civil about our detention centers,” said Karen Tumlin, co–author of the report and a staff attorney at NILC. “These centers, where people are detained for months and often years at a time, often fail to provide people with their fundamental rights: access to loved ones, the basic materials needed to research and prepare their cases, or even a simple explanation of their rights while within the immigrant detention system.”

    Immigrant Detainee Rights Are Routinely, Systematically Violated, New Report Finds, July 28, 2009


The unsettling findings of the report were featured in the press widely including the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Color Lines, Univision and La Opinion among others. The study adds to the more than 11 reports —including observations by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights — published since January 2009, documenting the inhumane treatment and poor conditions within the immigration detention.


The dismal state of our immigration detention system highlights one of the many failures of our dysfunctional immigration system. We need a comprehensive approach that fixes the deficiencies of our current immigration mess — including adequate oversight of our immigration detention system. Congress and the Department of Homeland Security need to transform our immigration and detention system into a system that respects human and civil rights and reflects the American values of fairness and transparency.

Update: One helpful step towards reforming our immigration detention system was taken today by Senators Menendez (D-NJ), Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kennedy (D-MA) with the introduction of two vital pieces of legislation on immigration detention. You can read more about it here

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