Guilty Until Proven Innocent in Immigration Detention


Photo from flickr.

Not only are immigrants in detention “dying for decent [medical] care,” a recent report by Amnesty International blasts the federal government for violating their human rights by allowing tens of thousands of people — including U.S. citizens — to “languish” in custody for months to years without receiving hearings to determine whether their detention is warranted.

Amnesty’s Western regional office Director, Banafsheh Akhlaghi, says:

“It’s easy to lock up someone, throw away the key and then make him prove that ICE is wrong.”

Unlike most defendants who are entitled by law to a free attorney if they cannot afford one, low-income immigrants usually have to depend on the limited availability of pro-bono attorneys. As a result, more than 80% of immigration detainees lack a lawyer.  Amnesty points out that, without representation, many immigrants simply give up and return to their home countries — even if they have a strong case to stay in the United States.  Many detainees are also unable to be freed on bond because the amount is set too high for them to pay.

Meanwhile, the Amnesty International study amplifies the findings of last week’s Human Rights Watch report which indicated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) systematically denied, delayed, and denigrated medical care to detainees, causing unnecessary suffering and even death:

As detailed below, we found that ICE policies unduly deprive women of basic health services. And even services that are provided are often unconscionably delayed or otherwise seriously substandard…ICE healthcare standards are ‘not in line with international standards to ensure that detainee rights are protected.’

Amnesty points out that less costly and more humane alternatives to detention that are just as effective exist.  The average cost of detaining an immigrant is $95 per person/per day, while other measures which cost as little as $12 per person/per day could save the government millions of dollars.  A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that such alternatives to detention are generally effective – in approximately 91% of cases, immigrants show up for their hearings.

The Pew Hispanic Center has also highlighted the government’s waste of money and manpower on the pursuit and punishment of undocumented immigrants who are non-violent and pose no threat to public safety or national security.  Of the more than 300,000 men, women and children taken into custody by U.S. immigration authorities each year, many are asylum seekers, torture survivors, human trafficking victims, lawful permanent residents and parents of U.S. citizen children.

Last month, Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, ordered the examination of all aspects of ICE operations and hired a special assistant, Dora Schriro, to oversee detention and removal conditions.  However, while Napolitano may be able to improve detention conditions, it’s up to our representatives in Washington, DC to fix a broken immigration system that’s holding 1.1 million people captive in deportation proceedings.

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