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These Lives Matter: “Detainee Not Found”

Port Isabel Detention Center

Guestblogger:Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

This post is the second in a new series titled “These Lives Matter,” in which NIJC staff, clients, and volunteers will share their unique perspectives on immigration stories that do not always make the news.

I began my legal career working with Guatemalan asylum seekers looking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. In working with this community, I heard stories time and again about loved ones who had been disappeared and saw firsthand how having a husband, son, or daughter disappeared can create a special kind of guilt, fear and grief. Working with detained immigrants many years later, I cannot help but notice parallels between individuals who were purposely disappeared in 1980s Guatemala and individuals who disappear when taken into ICE custody – mainly in the ways that family members left behind are affected by not knowing the immediate fate of their loved ones.

When an individual is detained by ICE, he or she can in fact be disappeared. It can take family members days, or in some cases weeks or even months, to locate loved ones arrested by ICE. Sometimes, a family does not learn of a loved one’s whereabouts until that person calls home after they are deported.

Locating a loved one relatively quickly does not necessarily lessen the trauma of witnessing the arrest in the first place. Take the case of Viviana and Martin*—mother and son. ICE officers came to their home and misled Viviana into believing that they were local police officers who only wanted to talk to Martin. They convinced Viviana to call her son home. She was devastated after witnessing the officers take her son into custody without further explanation. Martin—who had just turned 18,had diagnosed learning disabilities, had no previous encounters with the immigration authorities, and had engaged in no wrongdoing—was taken away, surrounded by armed men, while Viviana watched helplessly. The hours following Martin’s arrest were harrowing. Viviana spent that night calling every police station in town, only to be told there was no one by her son’s name in custody. Throughout the ordeal, Viviana was overcome with grief at the thought that she had turned in her own son.

There are countless stories like Viviana and Martin’s—sometimes it’s mothers, sometimes fathers, sons or daughters, taken away while loved ones, including children, stand by helplessly. In the aftermath, there usually are frantic calls to numbers that lead nowhere. It takes luck to reach an ICE officer who will answer any questions. The ICE Online Detainee Locator System—a public relations initiative ICE instituted following a series of wide-scale raids that resulted in mass “disappearances” —is hit or miss, more often a miss. If loved ones can get online—and most of the family members we encounter every day do not have access to the internet—they must either have the person’s “alien number” or the exact spelling of their name, date of birth and country of nationality. Then they must pass a “captcha” security check by typing in a word that appears in a box. Even lawyers have a difficult time getting the system to work. Despite having the necessary, accurate information, we still frequently get the message “detainee not found” if it is less than 24 hours since the arrest. It also takes the system a while to be updated following a transfer to a new detention center. This delay makes the first 24 hours or so following a person’s arrest all the more distressing for loved ones who realize a family member has gone missing.

Martin eventually reached his mother, after a collect call finally made it through to Viviana. He was later released from ICE custody after posting a bond. But months later, Viviana lives with the fear and guilt of those critical hours after Martin was taken away, when she believed her son to be missing and felt that she was responsible.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Picture Courtesy of http://www.texasobserver.org

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