Despite claims of increased transparency, accountability, and oversight, Nina Bernstein of the New York Times has unearthed more cover-ups at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These new findings have attorneys, advocates, and the public wondering if and when ICE will make good on its promise to reform the immigration detention system in demonstrable ways. Two issues that have recently come to light cast doubt on these promises.
ICE took an important step when it decided to be more transparent about deaths that occurred in their detention centers. However, new information obtained by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed not only an initial lack of reporting deaths, but also a dishonest and disturbing track record of ICE officials attempting to cover up the circumstances surrounding those deaths. In the report, Bernstein reveals numerous examples of ICE officials denying knowledge of circumstances surrounding deaths when, in fact, the officials were already planning how to cover up their mistakes.
One case revealed an attempt to falsify records. Medical officials claimed they gave a patient medication when, according to medical records, he was already deceased. Other cover-up attempts include ICE trying to use a “humanitarian release” in order to let a detainee die outside of ICE custody as well as an attempt to deport a man before he died of brain injuries suffered while in ICE custody. Despite these cover-ups, many of the ICE officials responsible remain employed under the new administration. As Bernstein states, full transparency remains unlikely as long as the only organization overseeing ICE is ICE itself.
Related and perhaps even more secret are the 186 unlisted and unmarked ICE subfield offices around the country. Officially, these offices are designed to house and confine individuals in transit to detention centers, with 84% of all book-ins going through these subfield offices. In practice, however, these subfield offices are being used to more permanently hold individuals in ICE custody. Because the subfield offices are only designed to be temporary holding facilities, they are not subject to ICE detention standards. This means the facilities have no beds, showers, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, or sanitary napkins. In addition, those individuals in custody lucky enough to have legal counsel are often unable to contact them, and their attorneys have trouble locating their clients. ICE has no real time database to keep track of individuals held in subfield offices, meaning both attorneys and even ICE officials have trouble locating individuals in custody. Adding to the accountability issue is the fact that most of the subfield offices are unmarked, containing no flags or signs. This lack of identification prompts more questions about an organization that is trying to become more transparent. As to whether ICE is attempting to reform this practice, the answer appears murky at best.
Until these and other issues are addressed—such as making ICE detention standards regulatory, especially when using outside contractors—advocates are rightfully calling ICE’s bluff. Real transparency must be backed up by real oversight, especially when it comes to detention centers.
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