Stuck Between a Rock and U.S. Immigration Policy

Sarnata Reynolds, AIUSA’s policy and campaign director for refugee and migrant rights, spoke at a press teleconference on Thursday July 30th, 2009, set to discuss the bills presented by Senators Menendez and Gillibrand: “Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act” and “Strong STANDARDS Act.” These new bills stand to drastically improve plight of detained US citizens and immigrants. The bills also require immigration authorities to ensure that U.S. citizens and other vulnerable populations such as children are informed of their rights when arrested, are considered for release and are treated humanely while detained.

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.

Posted in USA

Call Obama on Torture Day

Today, June 26, is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In establishing the day in 1998, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “Today the United Nations appeals to all governments and members of civil society to take action to defeat torture and torturers everywhere…This is a day in which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable.”

Murat Kurnaz is one such person who “endured the unimaginable.” The 19-year-old German resident was held for five years, without charge or trial, and tortured and abused. In his book “Five Years of My Life,” Kurnaz wrote:

“They prepared me for interrogations by putting electric shocks through my feet. For hours on end they would hang me up by my hands, which were bound behind my back in different positions and then a break, and then you would be hung up again. “

Who did this to him?  Egypt? China? Iran? Myanmar? No, the United States of America. The quote describes Kurnaz’s treatment by US personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Under the UN Convention Against Torture, the US government is obligated by law to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide remedy to torture victims.

Yet Murat Kurnaz’s allegations of torture and abuse have never been properly investigated; those responsible for ordering and creating the US torture program have not been prosecuted; and the US government has claimed that victims of US torture have no right to remedy, or even an apology.

President Obama has said he wants to look forward, not back. President Obama has rejected an independent commission of inquiry into the US torture program. President Obama has left open loopholes for torture.

This is not acceptable. Not for Americans, not for foot soldiers who have taken the fall, not for the world, not for the rule of law, not for Murat Kurnaz or the hundreds or thousands of others who have been tortured by the US.

“Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

- Major General Antonio Taguba, US Army (Ret.), in his Preface to “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” by Physicians for Human Rights.

There is still hope that President Obama will change course: he will do what it takes to get re-elected, so if the American public stands up for accountability for torture, then he will too.

Stand up with us: join Amnesty International members across America in marking International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by calling the White House comment line right now and urging President Obama to investigate and prosecute torture, and provide remedy to victims. Click here for the number and script.

U.S. Obligation to Freed Gitmo Detainees

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Four Uighur former Guantanamo inmates are now in Bermuda, other detainees have been released to France, Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hungary, Italy and Palau appear to have joined the ranks of countries prepared to accept detainees cleared for release. The pace of releases finally seems to be picking up and that is a cause for optimism.

But, while groups like Amnesty are pleased to see these individuals finally released from wrongful detention, we are disturbed that there has been no public announcement that any of these individuals will receive compensation for their ill-treatment or any assistance from the United States in rebuilding their lives or coming to terms with their experiences.

Many of you reading this blog may feel that this is a side issue but it is not. International law requires the U.S. to provide remedy to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Consider for a moment what the men recently released have lost. They have lost seven years of their lives. Quite apart from the personal deprivation of liberty that is also seven years of lost earning potential – one fifth of a working life. Their families too have been without their primary breadwinner all this time.

Furthermore, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? They certainly haven’t had the opportunity to learn or develop a trade while in detention, nor are many of them returning to a society they know well. Some may not even speak the local language. However idyllic Bermuda may appear in press photographs, it is a world away from the Central Asian steppe the Uighurs are used to.

Some released inmates may be grappling with medical or mental health problems. Defense attorney, Jeffrey Colman, a thirty-five year veteran of the criminal justice system who has represented four GITMO inmates this week described the facility as:

“Unlike any other institution… there is a level of hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.”

We know 5 inmates have committed suicide since the camp opened and in March this year the Department of Defense reported that 34 inmates were on hunger strike. Such figures give some insight into the harrowing nature of the detainees’ experiences – yet no provision has been made to support their rehabilitation.

Closing Guantanamo is not in and of itself enough. We have a moral and legal obligation to aid the reintegration of former inmates back into society. These men have been convicted of no crime. In our system that means they are innocent. No ifs or buts.

Innocent men wrongly held for seven years have a right to compensation. The Obama administration can’t simply shove them out the gates of Camp Delta and forget about them. The United States must take responsibility for rebuilding lives it has ruined.