For ICE Prisons, a Blank One-Year Progress Report

Today marks one year since ICE promised to fix the detention system. So far, there's little to celebrate.

By Michelle Chen Aug 06, 2010

You might have missed it, but Friday was an important anniversary. It marked one year since Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a promise to a growing community of traumatized and outraged immigrants, their anxious families, and frustrated advocates. ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton vowed to fix the immigrant detention system, which has ripped families apart with virtual impunity throughout the Bush and Obama administrations. If you didn’t notice this milestone, we can’t blame you. The Detention Watch Network remembered, though, and in a statement issued on Thursday, the coalition saw little cause for celebration: While noting some efforts to change the worst aspects of detention policy over the past year, DWN Executive Director Andrea Black remarked:

The reality is, under President Obama’s Administration, more people are being detained and deported than under the Bush Administration, in a manner that fails to meet the United States’ human rights obligations under international law. These practices are inconsistent with our nation’s values and are not making our communities safer.

There have been a few highlights. The infamous Hutto detention center, which once housed whole families and was sharply criticized for its inhumane treatment of detainees, no longer holds parents with children. Now, it’s exclusively a women’s facility. You have to wonder whether the misery of a mother living in total isolation from her community and family is preferable to jailing children alongside them. In any case, women continue to face special hardships in detention.

In May, Hutto came under scrutiny once again when allegations surfaced of a series of sexual assaults by a CCA guard against females detained there. "We were heartened that the Obama Administration ended family detention at Hutto and took on reforming the broader immigration detention system," said Rocío Villalobos, of Texans United for Families, a member organization of Detention Watch Network. "Today, the majority of women at Hutto are seeking refuge from violence in their home countries. This spring’s sexual assault incidents show how detention subjects people to more violence, which deepens their trauma, rather than protects them from it." ICE has also appointed "detention managers" to work in 42 facilities and hired experts in detention management and health care. However, their presence has meant little change for detained immigrants. For example, a detention manager was working at the Hutto facility at the time the sexual assaults occurred, calling into question the detention managers’ ability to adequately oversee detention operations.

The threat of sexual assault, according to a recent congressional report, is acute for female detainees, as unaccountable and incompetent administration, lack of due process, and imminent risk of deportation expose them to abuse and coercion. Alex DiBranco at wrote in an analysis of the report:

Women who reported rape were denied gynecological exams or other treatment, in line with a standard lack of health care in detention; two actually became pregnant by immigration officers. Yet there has been little accountability, and in 2008, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center was still reporting cases of sexual assault.

One study of detention facilities in Arizona, and a more extensive report from Human Rights Watch on female detainee healthcare issues, exposed the myriad abuses women suffer, including inadequate medical care and mental health services; indefinite separation from their children, sometimes across state lines; and "aggressive" prosecution and incarceration of women, even when they posed no actual threat to security. Over the past year, ICE has promised "improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence, and ICE oversight." But the cruelties suffered by women in detention should serve as a measure of how desperate the situation remains. If their goal is to eliminate an unwanted population, ICE detention policies seem to be getting smarter by the day. The most efficient way to get rid of immigrants is to start at the root, destroying the mothers, wives and sisters that anchor communities across borders.