The Senate Judiciary Committee went into immigration high gear yesterday, working later into the evening on 50 amendments to the immigration reform bill. At the end of the day of markup, the bill was amended in a number of ways to protect the human rights and civil liberties of detainees. Rights groups claimed the votes as small victories in their long effect to chip away at the abuses of immigration detention and deportation.
Among the biggest victories for the rights of detainees was the passage yesterday of an amendment.pdf) from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to limit the use of solitary confinement for detainees. A recent investigation by the NY Times found that at least 300 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held in solitary confinement each day. This means they’re kept in a cell for at least 22 hour a day. Half are held in these conditions for more than two weeks at a time, sometimes in tiny windowless cells.
The Times investigation found that ICE lacks guidelines and rules for the use of solitary confinement. The Blumenthal amendment would send the agency clear limits on the practice, especially for young and mentally ill detainees, and require ICE to develop oversight mechanism for it’s hundreds of facilities, including the private and county jails with ICE contacts.
The senators also agreed on another Blumenthal amendment.pdf) that limits ICE’s authority to conduct raids near schools, hospitals, and religious institutions.
A major amendment sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, would protect children of detained and deported parents from entering foster care or becoming stranded if their mother of father is taken by immigration agents. The amendment is the only one of the over 100 considered so far by the committee to have passed with full bi-partisan support with votes of approval from all 18 members of the committee.
The Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act.pdf), as the amendment is called, was introduced as a stand-alone bill by members of Congress in recent years but never became law. It allows parents to make addition phone calls to arrange for their kids’ care and makes it easier parents to take part in county child welfare and family court proceedings that affect parental rights and children’s custody. The amendment would also require that ICE consider the best interest of kids when making decisions about the detention of their mother or father.
A 2011 Colorlines.com investigation estimated that there were at least 5000 children of detained and deported parents in foster care around the country. Detained parents have often been excluded from the juvenile court proceedings where decisions are made about their parental rights and the future of their children.
The Senators narrowly fended off an amendment.pdf) from Sen. Grassley that would have barred from the path to citizenship any undocumented immigrant suspected of gang activity, even if they have not been convicted of any crime. As I’ve written before, provisions that bar immigrants on the basis of suspected gang attachments often rely on overly broad local standards for identifying gang membership and would have overwhelmingly impacted young immigrants of color. The immigration reform bill already includes a provision to exclude immigrants from the provisional path to citizenship if they are deemed to have participated in a gang and knew that their activity was criminal. The Grassley amendment would have vastly expanded this exclusion by forcing immigrants to prove that they didn’t know they were part of a gang.
The committee will continue markup today in hopes of making it through all amendments and sending the bill to the Senate floor soon after the Memorial Day weekend. Though yesterday’s votes suggest the path forward in committee could be a reasonably smooth one, a number of controversial amendments may create additional turbulence. Ultimately, the bill is expected to leave the committee and head to the Senate floor where the bill’s supporters hope it will garner broad support. The fate of immigration reform in the House remains far less certain.