Recent deaths at immigration detention centers in Georgia have made one fact disturbingly clear: detainees’ rights are being violated, with life and death consequences. These tragedies are not isolated incidents, but rather part of an ongoing trend in Georgia’s immigration system that consistently violates basic human rights, disregards detention standards, and leaves detained immigrants with little available recourse.
Project South and Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic released a report last month titled Imprisoned Justice: Inside Two Georgia Detention Centers to chronicle the stories of detainees at the Irwin County and Stewart Detention Centers following a 13-month investigation.
The report juxtaposes the Department of Homeland Security’s standards of care for detained immigrants with first-hand accounts that show clear violations of those standards. Formally called the Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), this criterion is intended to secure detainees’ access to basic necessities—food, medical care, and a safe environment all fall under PBNDS.
The report opens:
The unhygienic environment and poor living conditions not only take a toll on the detained immigrants’ health, but also have a negative and disturbing impact on the minds of the individuals being held in detention. The detained immigrants who engage in voluntary work at the detention facilities are paid much below the minimum wage, at times lower than $1 per day. Additionally, detained immigrants are not provided with adequate access to legal information, and phone usage is both limited and expensive.
Beyond failing to provide for the detainees’ basic health and safety needs, the limits on legal access can have dire consequences. For the detained individual scheduled to see an immigration judge at a removal hearing, having access to a law library or visitations from a lawyer is critical to building their case.
Despite having these PBNDS requirements in place, the report reveals grave violations of these standards. An account from a detained immigrant in the Stewart facility describes the obstacles they faced when trying to gain access to the center’s law library: “The woman working at the law library yells at detainees like they are children… She is not helpful at all. Sometimes I cancel my visit because the librarian is so rude and disrespectful.”
In addition to only having two computers with no internet access, the librarian controls access to the detainees’ legal documents. The interviewee adds, “The librarian told me it is not my right to have copies [of my legal documents]… I request access but it is up to the librarian. She has discretion on scheduling appointments.”
Beyond the law library, detainees and their attorneys describe other experiences that suggest a serious infringement of the right to counsel and basic due process.
While recent commentary by President Trump and his administration suggest an evisceration of these standards and a move towards increasing detention capacity in order to hold more immigrants, the way forward should be creating a system where standards are adhered to, detention is reduced, and access to counsel is the norm.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is member of the Board of Trustees of American Immigration Council; the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Law Professor at Penn State Law and author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press)
Photo by Mike Krzeszak