Senators Menendez, Kennedy, and Gillibrand Fix Immigration Detention


Photo by bradleyjames.

BY GREGORY CHEN, LUTHERAN IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE SERVICES

Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took action today to reform the Department of Homeland Security’s ever-growing immigration detention system. The need for reform could not be any more clear: several recent reports have documented both the poor conditions in detention facilities and violations of detainees’ due process rights. A delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called conditions “unacceptable” after visiting facilities in Florida and Texas. The National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Southern California, and Holland & Knight law firm published a system-wide report on the federal government’s compliance with its own minimum standards, finding “fundamental violations of basic human rights and notions of dignity” and calling for a halt to any further expansion of the current detention system.

Senator Menendez and Gillibrand’s Strong STANDARDS Act bill would require the Secretary to issue rules regarding detention conditions in 15 different areas, including medical care, access to telephones, the treatment of vulnerable populations, and the use of force. Oversight and accountability would be enhanced through requirements that the Secretary issue rules regarding enforcement, report all detainee deaths, and appoint a Detention Commission responsible for investigations and reporting on compliance.

Ironically this report by NILC, ACLU, and Holland & Knight followed a DHS announcement stating that it will not issue rules formalizing detention standards. The existing internal guidelines, DHS claims, are enough. DHS seemingly would prefer that Congress ignore the problem of immigration detention. But how can Congress ignore not only this week’s report but over a dozen other reports from trustworthy organizations or the government, itself, on the poor and substandard conditions of immigration detention? How can Congress ignore repeated news stories of people dying in detention—like Francisco Castenada who repeatedly complained of a small lesion on his body but received no care for months and then was diagnosed too-late with a lethal cancer that killed him in 2008? Reform is urgently needed.

Another fundamental problem is that detention has become the one-size-fits-all solution. Rather than carefully screening people before throwing them in detention, DHS has adopted a default detention policy and this year is expected to hold 440,000 persons, more than tripling the number of people detained since 1997. Most detainees have no criminal record and pose no threat to our communities. Many have legal status or even U.S. citizenship.

Earlier this week the San Francisco chronicle reported several instances of U.S. citizens being wrongfully detained. One man, Hector Veloz, is a U.S. citizen and the son of a decorated Vietnam veteran. But in 2007 immigration officials mistook him for an illegal immigrant and locked him in an Arizona prison for 13 months. Even after he proved his case before a judge, the Department of Homeland Security appealed the matter keeping him detained for another 5 months until he won on appeal and proved DHS wrong again.

A second bill, the Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act, introduced by Senators Menendez, Gillibrand, and Kennedy, requires ICE to take certain steps during enforcement activities to ensure that citizens and legal residents stay out of the detention system. Such steps include providing all persons apprehended by ICE with prompt access to telephones and a list of free or low-cost legal aid. The bill also prioritizes release options for people with legitimate claims to U.S. citizenship and vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant or nursing women, families with children, and asylum seekers.

Most undocumented immigrants have families, jobs and homes in the United States – they and other vulnerable populations are unlikely to pose a flight risk while awaiting an immigration hearing. Parole, bond and other alternatives are not only more humane but less costly. Why pay a dollar when you can pay a dime? That the dollar is spent on locking up families with children, torture survivors, and pregnant mothers is just one of many signs that our entire immigration system—including the detention system—is broken and in need of comprehensive reform.

Locking people up will not solve the problems with our nation’s immigration system. Instead of more detention we need more smart solutions to a complex problem. Soon Congress and the American people will wake up and realize that detention is costing us billions and hurting thousands of people and our communities but ultimately failing to provide real answers.

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  1. ICE Begins Immigration Detention System Overhaul | The LA Progressive | August 8, 2009
  1. This is the best news I’ve had in months. I hope they can move fast enough to save the people I am dealing with who are in horrible danger right now due to the excesses of ICE.

    I presently know of two ICE detainees in prison with cancer who are not receiving treatment or anything for the pain, one ICE detainee in prison with a broken jaw caused by prison guards that has not been fixed for years, a Christian ordered deported to Algeria, two victims of domestic slavery detained by ICE and doing hard time in prison, another case of severe domestic abuse from a citizen husband who is not seeking help for fear of being imprisoned and deported by ICE, a man lauded by the likes of Nelson Mandela for his work in the field of human rights who has been detained by ICE and has sat in prison for almost three years, multiple young men who have been here since early childhood, who know no other country other than America who have been taken from their families and are sitting in prison or have been deported – and the list goes on and on.

    I’m not actively looking for these people. I started out just trying to rescue a friend taken from us by ICE the day before Thanksgiving. These other cases are just dropping in my lap and most are in just one prison. This is a national disgrace! If someone were to treat an animal the way these people are being treated that person would be arrested and jailed. If it were China or Russia doing this we would all be horrified. How is it different that we are doing it?

    I’ve written to President Obama multiple times. My open letter to him and Janet Napolitano can be found on my web site. To date I’ve received one email about the President’s health care package. Those of us who are being mentally tortured and financially raped over and over again by our present immigration system because we have a family member or friend taken by ICE can think of nothing else. Health care isn’t even on our radar.

    I was active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement and went to the south to work for Civil Rights. I’ve seen this country do some shameful things over the years, but this is by far the worst and most disgraceful abuse of human rights that I have ever seen here. I did not think I would live to see such things done in the USA. To allow it to continue for one second longer is a travesty of justice that can not be tolerated in the land of “liberty and justice for all.” We have no business looking to the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the greatness of our country as long as ICE is so actively defiling the very essence of what she stands for. There are days the horror of what I am experiencing and seeing others experience renders me speechless. Today is not one of those days.

  2. The picture in this article is all you need. How could anyone feel comfortable allowing a human being to stay in there. Many immigrants are not hard criminals, they are looking for a better life.

  3. Jess says:

    Thank you Senators Menendez, Gillibrand, and Kennedy.

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