• Press Release

U.S. Immigration Authorities Must Abide by International Obligations on Detention of Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

December 9, 2015

Justin Mazzola, Deputy Director of Research for Amnesty International USA, issued the following statement:

"Over the past two months, detainees in 10 immigration detention facilities across Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and California have staged hunger strikes to protest their prolonged and indefinite detention and conditions of confinement. Many of the detainees are from South Asian, African and Central American countries and are seeking asylum in the United States. Despite passing credible fear interviews, they have been held in detention for prolonged periods of time, one as long as two years, as they seek protection, according to advocacy and immigrant rights organizations such as D.R.U.M., #Not1more and Grassroots Leadership.

"In violation of both U.S. and international law, authorities at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas, where the hunger strikes originated, brought the consul from Bangladesh to the facility to speak to the detainees, despite many of the hunger strikers seeking protection from the very government the consul represents. Following the meeting, images of the detainees along with several of their names were published by media outlets in Bangladesh. 

"While several of the initial hunger strikers were released, others have been placed in solitary confinement, transferred to remote facilities, undergone abusive strip searches or alleged other abuse from guards, including one detainee’s claims of a forced catheterization by medical staff. Many of the detention facilities where hunger strikes have occurred have been previously reported for poor conditions and lack of access to services by advocacy organizations in the past, including Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. 

"On December 8, a federal judge in Alabama approved an order to force feed a hunger striking detainee at Etowah County Detention center. Similarly, on December 21, a second federal judge in Florida granted a petition that authorizes medical staff to involuntarily draw blood and force feed 10 hunger striking detainees through nasal-gastric tubes, if necessary, at Krome Service Processing Center in Miami. While Amnesty International is not in a position to know the details of these cases, the forced feeding of protesters on hunger strike raises issues of medical ethics, informed consent, detainee autonomy, confidentiality and the overall treatment of detainees.

"While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations. Detention is only appropriate when authorities can demonstrate in each individual case that it is necessary and proportionate to the objective being achieved and on grounds prescribed by law and that alternatives would not be effective. A limited number of specific purposes are recognized as legitimate grounds for detention under international standards, including verifying identity, protecting national security or public order, and preventing a person from absconding following an objective assessment or flight risk.  Amnesty International USA has repeatedly called on immigration authorities to reform U.S.  detention practices, especially for asylum seekers who are seeking protection from persecution and insecurity.     

"The U.S. government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses. Amnesty International continues its call for U.S. immigration authorities to reform policies to ensure they adhere to international standards by:

  • Utilizing immigration detention only as a measure of last resort; it must be justified in each individual case and be subject to judicial review.   
  • Authorities must provide detained immigrants access to competent counsel and interpretation services, medical and mental health care, and regular and meaningful reviews of their detention status. 
  • "Non-custodial alternatives to detention should always be considered before the decision to detain, and the least restrictive alternative should be used in each individual situation.  
  • Federal, private, state and local facilities detaining immigrants should be required to abide by enforceable human rights standards of treatment and be held accountable when the standards are transgressed." 

In 2009, Amnesty International released Jailed Without Justice: Immigration detention in the USA, which demonstrates how immigrants are often arbitrarily detained for indefinite periods of time without any meaningful opportunity to review their detention, while held in prisons and jails that do not meet international standards for administrative detention including a lack of access to proper medical care. During the course of their detention, detained immigrants are often moved multiple times to remote facilities, far from legal and family support.