Many languish separated from their families, commingled with people serving criminal sentences, and sometimes denied access to attorneys, family members and adequate medical care. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could issue new regulations that would quickly solve many of these problems. But instead, just three weeks ago, the office in charge of these policies testified before Congress that it plans to detain almost a hundred thousand more immigrants this year than last.
The new research outlined in the Amnesty International report released today, Jailed without Justice, shows that:
• Lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture are being detained while they fight for protection
• US citizens and lawful permanent residents can be detained for years without any review of their custody
• Meaningful oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent
• Individuals in detention often lack treatment for their medical needs and 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years
Our findings are similar to what I’ve seen working in the immigration system for a decade. Before I joined Amnesty International’s staff, I represented immigrants and asylum seekers in San Francisco. I never met the first detained person whom I represented. He was a nineteen-year-old from Sierra Leone who had witnessed the murder of his father and neighbors. I will call him Joseph. The night of the massacre, he slipped into a cargo ship not knowing where he was going or how long he would be at sea. Joseph was discovered by the ship’s captain and turned over to immigration authorities upon arrival in the U.S. He was detained in Texas and applied for asylum without the help of an attorney. His case was denied. To be granted asylum, a person must show that he fears persecution on account of a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Joseph belonged to a particular tribe and his village was targeted for this reason. Under immigration law, a tribe is often considered either a race or nationality for purposes of asylum protection.
In detention, Joseph was unable to secure documents to support his claim and in representing himself, he did not know what was important to share with the immigration judge and government attorney. I learned of Joseph’s case through a pro bono program and agreed to write his appeal. In the appeal I asked that the case be reopened so that Joseph could submit documents supporting his claim. Joseph’s appeal was denied. The Board of Immigration Appeals thought Joseph had not provided evidence that he was persecuted on account of a protected ground. I believed this decision was wrong and advised Joseph to appeal, but he couldn’t face months or years more in detention with an uncertain outcome. He was deported.
In San Francisco I could meet my clients in jail, but communication was very difficult. Oftentimes they were despondent and we spent a lot of time talking about why it was worth it to continue fighting. Preparing a detained client for court was extremely difficult because often the client’s wrist was shackled to the table, there was very little privacy, and we had limited amount of time together. Securing documents could take an exceptionally long time.
When I joined Amnesty International, immigrants in detention were never far from my mind. As part of the research team assigned to look at immigrant detention, I went back to San Francisco to document detention practices in the Bay Area. It was disturbing to see that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies on detention had not improved, and in many instances, seemed more draconian. Detained immigrants still faced an indefinite number of months and years behind bars; securing affordable counsel was exceptionally hard; and immigrants were forced to wear prison jumpsuits, shackled to each other or a table when they were outside their cells, and their time was limited when spouses and children came to visit. It was heartbreaking and unnecessary.
Depriving people of their liberty without any right to a hearing is contrary to the constitution and American values. As the Supreme Court found in the Guantanamo cases, the constitution does not permit the U.S. to lock people up and throw away the key. Yet, that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of immigrants (and some US citizens) as they go through deportation proceedings in the U.S. The law must change to reflect international human rights standards and U.S. values.