When Esmeralda, a transgender asylum seeker from Mexico, came to the US seeking a place that was accepting of her identity, what she received instead was a horrific experience in immigration detention. Kept in a segregated cell with other transgender detainees, Esmeralda never realized that her experience in detention would match the trauma of discrimination she had faced back home. “They would handcuff us as if we were murderers and were trying to escape…. but we were not trying to run away,” she said. While handcuffed in a cell, she was sexually abused by an immigration guard, an experience which caused her deep mental and emotional trauma.
The US immigration detention system is in deep crisis. Since 1994 the number of detention beds has grown from 5,000 to over 33,000 with more than 1.7 million individuals passing through the system since 2003. The government is denying due process and fairness in our communities by detaining immigrants who pose no danger and are not a flight risk to the community in inhumane and unregulated detention centers. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are detained each year. Transferred far away from their homes and families, there are many stories of detainees such as Esmeralda who are denied basic human rights, such as telephone calls, visitation,access to a lawyer, medical care, and they can be subject to physical and verbal abuse. Even with reported deaths of detained immigrants, detention conditions continue to decline.
Today, human rights groups around the country participated in a National Day of Action organized by Detention Watch Network to mark the one-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) 2009 detention reform announcement. The National Day of Action is part of the, “Dignity, Not Detention: Preserving Human Rights and Restoring Justice,” campaign led by the Detention Watch Network, which calls for an end to the human rights abuses in detention centers, the restoration of due process in the enforcement of immigration laws, and the implementation of cost saving alternatives.
As part of the Day of Action, Detention Watch Network released a joint report, Year One Report Card: Human Rights & the Obama Administration’s Immigration Detention Reforms, that it co-authored with the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. The report reveals that many of those detained still suffer egregious human rights violations while in custody. Immigrants continue to be jailed for months or even years under substandard conditions. Mistreatment by guards, grossly deficient medical care, use of solitary of confinement, and limited access to family and counsel remain persistent problems.
Detention should only be used as the last possible option and for the shortest amount of time. Currently, many vulnerable people, including asylum seekers, pregnant women, children, lawful permanent residents and even U.S. citizens are among those detained, without knowing how long they will be held or why they are being held. Instead of placing thousands in detention centers that cost tax payers $99 per day, DHS should improve legislation around the cost-saving community-based alternatives to detention such as conditional release, requiring people to check in either in person or by phone, bonds or financial deposits.
Participants in the National Day of Action are calling for the restoration of human rights within the detention system, and an end to programs that indiscriminately channel immigrants into the detention and deportation system. Coordinated actions occurred across the country in cities including Austin, TX, Freehold, NJ, Minneapolis, MN, Seattle, WA and Trenton, NJ. For more information visit www.dignitynotdetention.org