In August 2008, 33 year old Alexandro Sibaja was picked up in Houston on a bad check warrant and turned over to immigration officials. Having moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 12, Sibaja was put into removal proceedings by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Over the next 15 months, he was transferred six times from Houston to Conroe, from Conroe to Mississippi, then back to Houston before being transferred to Amarillo and then to Big Spring. Eventually, he ended up in Haskell, Texas, and his case was assigned to the immigration court in Dallas. On November 25th, the immigration judge granted him a green card based on his seven-year long marriage to Lopez-Sibaja, a U.S. citizen, and the trauma that deportation would cause for his two children.
While the judgment came as a huge relief to Alexandro and his wife, the ordeal of the past 15 months is one that will haunt them for some time to come. By the end of the 15 months, Alexandro’s wife, Iris, barely visited him once every two months because she could not afford to drive seven hours to see him while working and looking after their children. Iris spent a large part of the past year trying to keep track of her husband’s whereabouts through the immigration detention network, since the information provided to her accompanying his transfers was patchy and inconsistent. Alexandro’s frequent transfers had the decided effect of delaying his proceedings. His original attorney, Steven Villarreal, had to stop representing him when he was transferred since it would have been too expensive once he factored in the costs of the flights and hotels. “I had to refer him to another attorney up there…This happens all the time,” Villareal said about the transfers.
Alexandro’s case is symptomatic of the gaping flaws in the detainee transfer system that were highlighted in separate reports brought out last Wednesday. In addition to the reports by the non-profit group, Human Rights Watch and the data analyzed by TRAC (discussed last week on Restore Fairness), The Constitution Project published a review of ICE policy entitled, ‘Recommendations for Reforming our Immigration System and Promoting Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings‘. These findings were corroborated by an investigation that was carried out by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security, and released in a document called ‘Policies and Procedures Related to Detainee Transfers‘.
The objective of the OIG investigation was to determine “whether ICE detention officers properly justify detainee transfers according to ICE’s standards,” and their findings verify the criticisms of the system offered by the other reports. The OIG found that the detainee transfer procedures regularly failed to comply with the tenets of the ICE National Detention Standards; they were random, they resulted in a loss of access to necessary evidence and witnesses, and to legal counsel itself, and in increased time spent in detention. Further, most people were transferred without the requisite photo and security classification. From the report:
Transfer determinations made by ICE officers at the detention facilities are not conducted according to a consistent process. This leads to errors, delays, and confusion for detainees, their families, and legal representatives…ICE National Detention Standards outline the policy, applicability, standards, and procedures for the transfer of a detainee. ICE must consider the detainee’s security requirements, medical needs, legal representation, and requests for a change in venue for the removal proceeding.
Responding to the delays, confusion and errors caused by the numerous transfers of detainees, not to mention the resultant denial of due process for the detained and their families, the OIG review and that drafted by The Constitution Project list a series of recommendations for corrective action to be taking by ICE. The recommendations outlined by the OIG address the disjointed network of private and county detention centers and the lack of a clear and centralized system of communication between them. They require ICE to establish:
A national standard for reviewing each detainee’s administrative file prior to a transfer determination, and that it develop protocols with EOIR (Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review) court administrators for exchanging hearing and transfer schedules.
The Constitution Project issued a review that called for large-scale amendments to immigration law and ICE policy, including access to legal counsel appointed by the government for those facing deportation. The Constitution Project, whose members include Asa Hutchinson, a former secretary of Homeland Security, called for measures that lead to shrinking the use of detention, making it easier for people to avoid detention while fighting deportation. According to the New York Times, the Constitution Project:
recommended a significant easing in the burden of proof, and a hardship waiver from mandatory detention for lawful permanent residents…Mr. Hutchinson said that the immigration agency could make many other changes immediately, including some that would “correct some potential unfairness in the system” unintentionally left by his own efforts when he was in office.
ICE responded with a statement on Wednesday announcing that they are in the process of overhauling the immigration detention system, and will work to reduce the number of detainee transfers. Working towards a “truly civil detention system” with more centralized agency control, the agency promised a re-issuing of the National Detention Standards that would require a review of the detainee’s file prior to a transfer, ensuring a more efficient and human approach to immigration detention.
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