Immigration Detention: Enforcing a Double Standard

By Michelle Chen Jul 29, 2009

Tens of thousands of people are living in a legal no-man’s land within our borders, and the government wants to keep it that way. According to a massive report just released by the ACLU of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center and other legal advocates, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention centers have routinely blocked detainees’ contact with family members and advocates, cut off from critical health care services, and provided little legal recourse against maltreatment—all with virtually no meaningful oversight. Yet the Obama administration has rejected advocates’ demands that ICE revamp its policies and make its rules legally enforceable. Instead, the administration insists that establishing new rules would be too much trouble, and the federal government is doing a fine job of policing its facilities and affiliated private contractors. Drawing from an array of official documents, the report describes gross inadequacies in the monitoring of detention conditions. In some cases:

a facility could be rated "acceptable" despite its having received a ‘deficient’ rating for several standards. More troubling, nothing in the [Detention Management Control Program] manual would prevent a reviewer from assigning an overall rating of “acceptable” even to a facility that was rated “deficient” for every standard.

At Passaic County Jail in New Jersey, meaningless standards have helped keep detainees trapped in a painfully restrictive environment:

While facility staff reported that detainees received one hour of exercise and recreation per day, including one hour per week in an outdoor rooftop area, detainees whom the [American Bar Association] interviewed reported receiving far less than this amount. The detainees also reported that after waiting to sign in to use the recreation facilities, they were left with only 20 minutes of recreation time. One detainee said that he was prevented from using the recreation facilities because he would not receive his HIV medication if he was not in his cell when the nurse came. In June 2005, ICE once again rated the facility as acceptable for the recreation standard, finding no violations of it that year, while the ABA found the facility still “fail[ing] to meet, in large part,” the standard.

The report cites two incidents involving detainees at a New York facility, recorded in a 2004 ABA report:

In the first example, two detainees reported that a facility guard “displayed extremely unprofessional behavior towards detainees over a period of several years, including taking some of his clothes off and simulating sexual acts with detainees, stating jocularly that he wanted to have sex with detainees, and cursing routinely in his speech. When detainees complained, the [facility] tour commander and security chief dismissed the concerns, stating that [the officer] was crazy and that they could not help.” In the second example, a detainee reported that he was being transported back to the facility after an outside dental appointment “when he was made to crawl from the bus to the Facility (approximately sixty-five feet) because the officers aiding in the transport would not loosen the shackles on his legs so that he could walk. . . . Upon reaching the Facility, [detainee] Y complained to other [facility] staff and was told that he would have to address his complaint to the security officers who handle detainee transportation.” Each of these detainees filed a formal written grievance against the Queens detention facility and forwarded a copy to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, DC, but neither received a response.

The analysis follows a growing stream of evidence that despite ICE’s claims of progress on improving detention conditions, detainees–many of them locked up for civil immigration violations as opposed to regular crimes–still suffer from substandard medical care and inhumane treatment. Meanwhile, the newly renovated North Georgia Detention Center of Hall County, Georgia is almost ready to open its doors to as many as 500 immigrants rounded up by ICE, under the management of the infamous private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America. One of the core problems identified in the ACLU/NILC report is that “No administrative or judicial means exists to enforce core components of ICE’s national detention standards. Compliance is a low priority because there is no sanction.” Perhaps trying to grease a centrist political path for “comprehensive” immigration reform, the White House is drawing a wide double standard: those who break immigration laws will continue to be subjected to draconian and arbitrary punishment. And the government will continue to shrug off the rules it has set for itself. Image: Child detainee’s letter from Hutto detention center (ACLU)