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When It Comes to Immigration Detention and Enforcement, Georgia Sets a Terrible Example

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia

On Monday, the ACLU of Georgia submitted testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on conditions at Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers as well as racial profiling in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. IACHR has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and is authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations in all member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) including the United States.

The IACHR hearing came less than a week after the body released its report critical of the U.S. immigration enforcement and detention system. The report was based on visits to six detention centers in the U.S. and interviews with detainees and their family members as well as human rights defenders.

In its report, the IACHR voiced concern for the increasing reliance on detention of immigrants, where in fact detention should be the exception. In addition, the IACHR expressed its concern with “lack of a genuinely civil detention system with general conditions that are commensurate with human dignity and humane treatment” and the increasing privatization of the immigration detention system in the U.S., with little oversight provided for the contracting prison corporations.

In Georgia, we know firsthand that private immigration detention facilities are particularly ripe for abuse. The ACLU of Georgia and Georgia Detention Watch have documented conditions at the largest corporate-run facility in the U.S., the Stewart Detention Center located in Lumpkin, Georgia. In April 2009, Georgia Detention Watch released a report on conditions at Stewart based on interviews with 16 detainees conducted in December 2008. As the report details, complaints at Stewart have ranged from inadequate medical care, arbitrary transfers, prolonged detention, and inadequate access to interpreters and counsel, to verbal and physical abuse.

In March 2009, the situation at this facility took a tragic turn when Roberto Martinez Medina, a 39-year-old immigrant held at Stewart, died of a treatable heart infection. To this day, many unanswered questions surround his death.

And if the past is any indication, we may always remain in the dark about why Mr. Medina perished in detention. The local ICE office has refused to meet with us to discuss the findings of the Stewart report or the death of Roberto Martinez Medina. It was only in November 2010, at instigation of the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, that ICE finally granted us a meeting. ICE assured us then that they will look into complaints about the conditions faced by detainees and take such issues very seriously. However, the local ICE office has since refused to convey to us a mechanism for timely and effective communication of complaints for fear of “clogging up their system.”

In its report, the IACHR also expressed concern about local-federal partnerships for enforcement of immigration laws, such as 287(g) and “Secure Communities,” which have led to racial profiling. The IACHR specifically called for termination of the failed 287(g) program.

The ACLU of Georgia submission to the IACHR included testimony of racial profiling and human rights abuses related to implementation of 287(g) in two Georgia counties, namely, Cobb and Gwinnett.

As documented in the ACLU of Georgia reports, many Latino community members in Gwinnett and Cobb counties have been stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The 287(g) program lacks the proper oversight mechanisms for the state or local levels, and allows for abuse of power by police officers who are not well trained.

What happened to “Gabriel,” detailed in the Cobb report, is illustrative. On May 19, 2009, on his way to completing a construction job, Gabriel’s car was stopped around a residential neighborhood close to Rocky Mountain Road, an area known to be targeted by Cobb police. Approaching a stop sign, Gabriel was extra careful to make a complete stop. But he was nonetheless pulled over by two Cobb County policemen on motorcycles. The officers did not tell him why they were stopping him, but later issued him a ticket for an improper stop.

Gabriel was asked to exit his car and the officers searched his car without seeking his consent. Gabriel was then arrested because he had no driver’s license.

Gabriel said: “The officer in the patrol car who arrested me was really nice. He took off my handcuffs to transport me to the jail. Upon arrival, a sheriff deputy at the jail asked the Cobb Police officer why he didn’t have me in handcuffs. The officer replied that he didn’t feel it was necessary. The two officers began to argue about this. I heard the sheriff deputy say really insulting things about me. The Cobb officer told the sheriff deputy to be quiet because I spoke English. The sheriff deputy then felt embarrassed and reacted by turning to me and telling me not to try anything because he’d ‘kick [my] teeth out.’”

Following his arrest, Gabriel’s wife paid his bond in the amount of $2,000 and he was released. When we talked to him, he was scheduled to be deported, but still living in Cobb. He avoided certain areas due to police harassment. Asked whether he would be reluctant to call the police in the future, he said, “Yes. I fear the police more than the criminals that might rob me.”

Gabriel is not alone. Many victims of racial profiling we spoke to in Cobb and Gwinnett also expressed fear of further contact with the police.

In addition to yesterday’s hearing, the ACLU has brought these issues to the attention of the U.S. government in several different human rights forums. In February, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program delivered a statement as part of the U.S. government’s Universal Periodic Review cataloging the numerous documented civil and human rights abuses associated with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities.

The U.S. government and Georgia should heed recommendations of the IACHR and put an immediate stop to programs such as 287(g) that lead to racial profiling and abuse of power by the police. The government should also end the unnecessary and inhumane detention of immigrants and instead, as urged by the IACHR, rely on effective alternatives to detention.

Photo courtesy of thenewstribune.com.

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