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On the first anniversary of immigration detention reforms, what has changed on the ground?

From the Detention Watch Network

On the first anniversary of an announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)) would overhaul the nation’s immigration detention system, reports show that for the nearly 400,000 immigrants ICE has detained this year, little has changed.

On August 6, 2009, in response to sharp criticism from advocacy groups, community organizations, and government officials, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton promised sweeping changes to improve detention conditions.  According to Mr. Morton, the agency intended to take substantial steps to transform the sprawling patchwork of approximately 350 jails and prisons into a non-penal, “civil” detention system.  

While advocates were initially encouraged by Mr. Morton’s promise to overhaul the detention system and move away from holding immigrants in jails and prisons, the reality on the ground is that little has changed.  ICE must do more to address the human rights violations occurring in both the detention and enforcement systems.

There have been a number of positive developments in the past year.  However, these are to achieve meaningful impact in the lives of those detained.  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.

Some of the steps ICE has taken toward achieving reform include last month’s launch of an Online Detainee Locator System, a tool allowing, for the first time, families and attorneys to find loved ones and clients in ICE custody.  In May, ICE piloted a risk assessment and custody classification tool, which will allow the agency to screen individuals to determine whether they should be released. Historically, ICE has routinely detained people that should have been released.  

ICE has also discontinued the detention of families and children at the T. Don Hutto Facility in Taylor, Texas, which received national attention when the facility’s substandard conditions became the subject of lawsuits. Today, ICE uses the Hutto facility, which is privately owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), to detain only women.

But there is much to be reformed. 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 Detention Watch Network, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, are releasing a report evaluating ICE’s progress in October 2010.

 A snapshot of the reports reveals that human rights violations persist.  In Florida, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center reported that gross deficiencies in the provision of medical care continue, as well as the unnecessary detention of individuals with serious medical conditions. For example, a woman at the Baker County Detention Center who had been detained for five years remained in custody despite her deteriorating health, which involved a heart catheter, ulcers, and lung and orthopedic problems.  

Multiple reports were received of inappropriate treatment of detained immigrants with mental health issues, including one man that was placed in solitary confinement after he exhibited suicidal tendencies. In New Jersey, the Middlesex County Coalition for Immigrant Rights described only two working toilets for a dorm with a maximum capacity of 48 that held 60 men.  Groups also report that individuals continue to be subjected to indefinite detention – in some cases for years.

Most recently,  the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has found that “U.S. deportation policy violates fundamental human rights because it fails to consider evidence concerning the adverse impact of the destruction of families, the best interest of the children of deportees, and other humanitarian concerns.”

Photo courtesy of www.machamexico.com

One Response to “On the first anniversary of immigration detention reforms, what has changed on the ground?”

    [...] deportation of a record 1 million people. Moreover, the stories of people who suffer physical and sexual assault, medical negligence, and even death in detention continue to [...]

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