Over the last twelve months, I have met with dozens of people detained in local jails, privately contracted centers, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities across the United States. Their arbitrary, prolonged and in some cases, indefinite, detention is shameful. Just a few weeks ago in Minnesota, I met two immigrants who had gone an entire year without ever being outside. Twelve months. The county jails they are held in are not designed for long-term detainees, and they have no outdoor facilities. One of the men stated, “deportation is supposed to be a civil procedure, but there’s nothing civil about it.”
In June, I went to Texas and met a man from Maryland who had been granted a $5000 bond by an immigration judge. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorney appealed the decision and invoked what is called the “automatic stay” – a procedure that gives ICE the authority to ignore an immigration judge’s decision while it pursues an appeal. For eight months the man languished in jail. Finally, in early July the administrative appellate body agreed with the immigration judge and ordered his release on a $5000 bond. During the eight months this breadwinner was detained, his family became destitute and now they don’t have the necessary $5000 to bond him out.
These stories are not anomalies. They represent the experiences of thousands of immigrants who are locked up right now across the U.S. They are mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers, community leaders, human rights defenders and scholars. They build houses and raise other people’s children, only to be ripped away from their own.
Immigration detention is a crutch that props up a broken, clumsy and inhumane enforcement policy. It is a poor substitution for smart immigration law, and reform of the entire system is desperately needed.
ICE will say that the average detention stay is 37 days, but this statistic is skewed. It includes the people who agree to be deported almost immediately after being arrested, and this accounts for tens of thousands of people every year. The reality is that if an individual chooses to fight deportation: because he/she is a US citizen, fears persecution, or is not in fact deportable, the person faces months and years of detention.
In our report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International documented over 100 cases in which individuals were detained for years, until they were ultimately found not deportable. These individuals don’t get those years back, and the US taxpayer will not recoup the massive cost of these needless detentions.
While Congress has funded alternatives to detention because they have been shown to be effective and significantly less expensive than detaining people, there is concern that ICE is using these funds for programs such as electronic monitoring to supervise individuals who are eligible for release rather than for individuals who would otherwise be detained.
Secure alternatives to detention should be considered in all cases, and if some form of custody is deemed necessary, they should be the norm for pregnant women, sick seniors, and nursing mothers. This is not the currently the case. In fact, in the summer of 2008, a nine months pregnant woman was detained and forced to undergo labor while shackled to a hospital bed. An officer remained in the room during the entire labor. There was no reason to believe that this heavily pregnant woman posed a flight risk or a danger. At most, she should have been placed in a secure alternative program. She was locked up.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has enacted standards for the treatment of people subject to immigration detention, these standards are not legally enforceable – and as was reported by Amnesty International, and reinforced this week in two more reports, transgressions of the standards occur frequently and with impunity. Despite this reality, just a few days ago the Obama administration declined to independently enact enforceable standards, stating that the current system is functioning well. As anyone who has been detained will tell you, the standards are not working.
Legislation that provides a framework for safe, humane and thoughtful detention policy is desperately needed, and the two bills introduced by Senator Menendez and his colleagues today meet these requirements. Amnesty International USA applauds Senators Menendez, Kennedy and Gillibrand for sponsoring these vital pieces of legislation, and Rep. Roybal Allard for her bill, introduced earlier this year. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in an immigration detention case it decided in 2001, “Freedom from imprisonment— from government custody, detention, or other forms of physical restraint – lies at the heart of the liberty [the due process] clause protects.” This truth is not reflected in current U.S. law and policy. It is time to reform them.