USA: Jailed Without Justice

March 25, 2009

USA: Jailed Without Justice

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More than 300,000 men, women and children are detained by US immigration authorities each year.[7] They include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children. The use of detention as a tool to combat unauthorized migration falls short of international human rights law, which contains a clear presumption against detention. Everyone has the right to liberty, freedom of movement, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

The dramatic increase in the use of immigration detention has forced US immigration authorities to contract with approximately 350 state and county criminal jails across the country to house individuals pending deportation proceedings. Approximately 67 per cent of immigration detainees are held in these facilities, while the remaining individuals are held in facilities operated by immigration authorities and private contractors.[8] The average cost of detaining a migrant is $95 per person, per day.[9] Alternatives to detention, which generally involve some form of reporting, are significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $12 per day.[10] These alternatives to detention have been shown to be effective with an estimated 91 per cent appearance rate before the immigration courts.[11] Despite the effectiveness of these less expensive and less restrictive alternatives to detention in ensuring compliance with immigration procedures, the use of immigration detention continues to rise at the expense of the United States' human rights obligations.

Approximately 1.8 million people migrate to the United States every year.[12] The vast majority have official authorization to live and work in the United States. Less than a quarter do not have permission to enter the United States, and they live and work in the country as unauthorized immigrants.[13] The US government estimates that as of January 2007, there were almost 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.[14] They come from countries around the world-the top five countries of origin are Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and China.[15] Unauthorized immigrants often live in the shadows and are at heightened risk of exploitation, discrimination and abuse. They often work in degrading conditions[16] and are frequently denied access to many forms of healthcare, housing, and other services.[17] Individuals committing abuses against immigrants know that they are unlikely to be held accountable, because unauthorized immigrants are often reluctant to turn to the authorities, fearing the possibility of arrest or deportation.

Politicians, public officials, and the media have a significant impact on the public's perception of immigrants and their rights. Much of the public debate about migration in the United States, particularly in the wake of the attacks of September 11, is framed around issues of national security and the economy. One primetime host of a national news channel stated, "Illegal aliens…not only threaten our economy and security, but also our health and well-being…"[18] Such comments contribute to a climate of fear and create the impression that immigrants do not – and should not – have any rights at all.

"If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear."
James Pendergraph, Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, August 21, 2008[19]