Jailed Without Justice: Immigrants in Solitary Confinement

A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security's Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security’s Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

On March 25, 2013, the New York Times published an article about the use, and overuse, of solitary confinement in immigration detention. It reported that 300 individuals are held in solitary confinement while awaiting resolution of their immigration cases, including one individual who was held for four months because of his sexual orientation.

Much like the issue raised by Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration detention on March 19th, the real question is why are these individuals even detained in the first place?

As Amnesty International documented in its report in 2009, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, individuals, including lawful permanent residents with long-standing ties to the U.S. and asylum seekers, are needlessly locked up in state and local jails and prisons for the sole purpose of appearing at immigration hearings, often without a hearing to determine whether they are a danger to the community or a flight risk.


Using Border Agents as Translators Has Tragic Consequences

Border Patrol Agent

© Getty Images

Guest post by Erica Schommer, border immigration attorney

This May, in a police stop gone wrong, Benjamin Roldan Salinas and a companion were detained by the U.S. Forest Service for picking salal (a plant used in floral arrangements), without a license.

Because Salinas did not speak English, the Forest Service called in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to translate. Events escalated rapidly when Salinas, in fear of being apprehended by immigration agents, ran from the agents to a nearby river.

After days of searching, Salinas’ body was found near the river on June 4. His companion remained with agents, but was subsequently arrested by the CBP for a suspected immigration violation and placed in removal proceedings.

Salinas’ fear was due to a phenomenon in which the CBP is called on by outside law enforcement agencies under the guise of translator. Once on the scene, however, the CBP does not limit itself to translating and will question a person about potential immigration violations if it suspects the person of an infraction. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Immigration Detention: The Golden Goose for Private Prisons

An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

For many months now, states all over the U.S. and the federal government have taken steps to “get tough” on undocumented immigrants of color without taking into account the fact that workers are crossing the border because U.S. employers are desperate for their labor and no visas exist to permit their entry.

Instead of spending their time tackling this reality, which if actually addressed might create a basis for the nondiscriminatory enforcement of immigration laws, legislators are instead continuing to introduce bills, such as Rep. Lamar Smith’s H.R. 1932.

These bills throw more money at detention centers and enforcement operations and ups the ante by making their imprisonment mandatory and indefinite, regardless of Supreme Court precedent finding that it’s unconstitutional.


Migrants’ Rights: A Visual and Verbal Journey

By Amalia Greenberg Delgado, Immigrants’ Rights Coordinator

“You don’t imagine that your dreams can end in a moment on this journey… he [the soldier] pulled me by the hand and told me to walk further into the bushes. He took me far away from the train tracks until we were completely alone. He told me to take my clothes off so that he could see if I was carrying drugs. He said that if I did what he said he would let me go.”
Margarita (not her real name), a 27-year-old Salvadoran migrant, describing how she was sexually abused by a soldier, Amnesty International interview, June 2009.

Every year, tens of thousands of women, men and children travel without legal permission through Mexico to reach the United States. They flee poverty, war, environmental disasters and are enticed by a promise of freedom and a chance to join their families in the North. Some disappear on the journey without trace, kidnapped and killed, robbed and assaulted or sometimes falling or thrown off speeding trains. Some suffer arbitrary detention and extortion by public officials along the way. The litany of abuses and repeated attempts to reach the United States are testaments to the determination migrants have to build a better life.

At the Annual General Meeting (AGM) this past Saturday, March 19, 2011, Amnesty International USA heard from leaders in the movement about increased human rights abuses of migrants on both sides of the United States’ southern border. Father Solalinde, a human rights defender and director of a migrants’ shelter in Oaxaca, spoke of the “globalization of love” and the absolute right to dignity that must be afforded to all human beings. His soft spoken words did not lessen the blows of his words as he reminded us of the struggles that migrants face.


A State of Siege in Texas?

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced this week that the 1,200 National Guard troops that President Barack Obama ordered to the southwest border were deployed on Aug. 1, and hundreds of additional Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being sent to the border to target dangerous criminals and help shore up security.

I asked Erica Schommer and Celestino Gallegos, Amnesty International members in Texas, what it’s been like living near the border. They were glad to set me straight!  They wrote:

If you are like most Americans, you probably believe that our southern border is under siege.  Recently, media coverage has had many people from D.C., New York, and other places far from the border talking about the crime and violence in the borderlands as if there was a crisis in the U.S.  For those of us who live on that border, the report released by the FBI was welcome news, confirming what many of us know:  statistics show that the border is safer than many places in the U.S.

We live ten miles from the Mexican border.  The increase in violence in Mexico has indeed impacted our lives: we do not go to Mexico nearly as much as we used to, and when we do, we are much more cautious. But no, the violence that has plagued Mexico since the inception of President Calderon’s war on the drug cartels has not “spilled-over” into the U.S. as many outside commentators have claimed.  Here in the U.S., life feels no different.

Nevertheless, pundits and opportunistic politicians have seized on the dramatic violence in Mexico to justify border militarization and undertake draconian immigration enforcement measures in the U.S.  While these measures may cater to the fears of the American public, they neither offer a long term humanitarian solution to our broken immigration system, nor provide any security to border residents.  Moreover, if adopted, these measures will result in significant human and civil rights violations of border residents.

We don’t want to live in a militarized zone. Would you? As it is, Border Patrol vehicles are a daily reminder of enforcement in our neighborhoods.  We don’t want to hear helicopters over head and see tanks stationed by the bridges, like there are on the Mexican side of the border.  We don’t want surveillance cameras in unmanned drones tracking our mundane daily activities.  It is not necessary and it is not welcome.


New Bill Could Help Families Torn Apart by Immigrant Detention

Some good news on the immigrant rights front: Recently Senator Al Franken (D-MN) along with Senators Kohl, Menendez, Klobuchar, Feingold, Durbin and Feinstein introduced S.3522 the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act, or the “HELP Separated Children Act.” This bill would implement critically needed reforms to protect children impacted by immigration enforcement.

In the past several years Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. Parents who are detained are separated from their children, sometimes permanently, breaking up the family structure. This legislation would help to minimize the traumatic effect that immigration enforcement situations have on children by giving parents the opportunity to make appropriate childcare arrangements, reducing the likelihood that children will unnecessarily be placed into the foster care system.

Amnesty International has long called for safe, thoughtful and humane immigration reform.  Part of this reform should include a move away from mandatory detention to community based alternatives to detention (if detention is required at all) for those who do not pose a flight risk (i.e. those with strong ties to the community, those with local families).  If release is contraindicated,  secure alternatives to detention should be considered in all cases involving pregnant women, sick seniors and nursing mothers.

Amnesty International has joined a broad coalition of human rights organizations in support of this legislation to reduce the devastating human rights impact of our nation’s immigration system on children. We have heard in recent weeks many brave voices speak up publicly about their own experiences of family separation. In Washington this has included a Senate briefing Amnesty co-hosted with the American Friends Service Committee where immigrant families and separated children filled the room to stand together in support and tell their stories of broken families struggling to survive without a mother or father. On the House side 10 year old Katherine Figueroa testified before a teary crowd about the fear she lives in after watching both parents being taken away and detained for three months (see video below).

In the wake of Arizona law SB1070, it is even more important that meaningful immigration reforms that respect the rights of all people are enacted.

Now it is time to hear YOUR voice. Take action to help support this critical legislation by calling your Senators U.S. (Capitol Switchboard 202-224-3121) and asking them to keep families together by cosponsoring the HELP Separated Children Act.

Don't Quota Me

On February 22, James Chaparro’s sixth day on the job as the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) behemoth detention and removal operation, he issued a memo directing all ICE field office directors to collectively identify, detain and deport 400,000 individuals in 2010. Stressing the need to increase this year’s numbers, the memo communicated the quota and provided ideas for how individuals could be identified for deportation, including increased use of detention and deportations without an immigration court hearing (i.e., expedited and stipulated removal). Entirely missing from the memo was any consideration of the drastic impact massive detention and removal would have on individual families, communities and employers.

Last Saturday, The Washington Post carried a story containing the first public information about the memo and the deportation quota. The Assistant Secretary of ICE John Morton issued a press statement distancing the agency from the memo’s contents. Chaparro apologized for the memo, stating that within a week of starting his job he had written and issued the memo without the approval of Morton or other senior staff. Daring and ambitious, if it’s really possible that a memo of this magnitude could be crafted and published at ICE headquarters without any consultation within the first few days of work, but frightening if Morton’s oversight is really this lax on national policy decisions to shatter families.

After Chaparro’s mea culpa, Morton stated emphatically that ICE does not use deportation quotas. Instead it has “performance goals” for individual ICE officers that should collectively add up to 400,000 deportations in 2010. Regardless of intent, in practice these performance goals result in a deportation quota. For example, in November 2009, in an e-mail titled “Productivity,” a unit of ICE officers was ordered to open up three new deportation cases every day. Failure to do so would require an explanation to the shift supervisor. On January 4, 2010, a full month before Chaparro arrived on the scene, ICE officers in Texas received a document explaining how their performance would be evaluated – deporting 46 or more people per month would garner an “excellent” mark. Completing 30 individual cases or less was “unacceptable.”

In 2010 one of those successfully completed “cases” involved a refugee whom I will call David. David had been resettled in the United States after suffering extreme torture in a prison camp. He entered this country with PTSD and self-medicated, which resulted in a drug possession conviction. ICE held him in county jails and moved to deport him but couldn’t because, given his severe trauma, an immigration judge waived the deportation. Over more than two years ICE appealed the decision, lost and appealed again. Even though David kept winning his case and being locked up was causing recurrent nightmares and flashbacks, ICE would not release David from detention. When I met David last summer he explained that his indefinite detention was wreaking havoc on his mental and physical health, and he did not have access to medical care that would help alleviate the trauma. He told me that every day he volunteered to help out jail staff in any way possible, hoping that it would exhaust him so that he could sleep. At the end of 2009, with an ICE appeal still pending, David gave up, leaving a U.S. citizen child behind. In January, his deportation helped one ICE officer meet his monthly quota.

Measuring success by the numbers may make sense in finance, but when the numbers constitute real people – mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers, community leaders, human rights defenders, refugees and scholars – it is an entirely inappropriate and dehumanizing measure of success. Without a doubt, ICE leadership is under pressure to be tough on immigrants, but this pressure cannot trump the rights of families to unity and individuals to due process and dignity.

For months Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Morton have publicly committed to transparency in government and dignity in detention and removal. Yet, it was only because of a newspaper’s exposure that Morton spoke out against Chaparro’s memo, and even then, he did not disavow the contents and instead essentially stated that it could have been better written.

Deportation quotas are dehumanizing, degrading and undermine due process. They force ICE officers to view individuals and families as milestones on their own road to success instead of people with their own hopes and dreams. Consistent with his public statements, Morton should retract the February 22nd memo, recalibrate and publicly release performance goals that focus on the deportation of individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes, and publicly restate his commitment to a system of detention and deportation that upholds the U.S. government’s ability to deport the dangerous while respecting and protecting the human rights of all.

Cover Up of Detention Center Deaths Exposed

This past weekend, the New York Times reported on the widespread and coordinated cover up of deaths in immigration detention. One such case, highlighted in our 2009 report on immigration detention, Jailed Without Justice, involved Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who had lived in the US for ten years when he was detained. Newly available video shows him begging for help while handcuffed on the floor in solitary confinement. After four months in a coma, he died in detention.

The deliberate and coordinated dehumanization of the 107 people known to have died in immigration detention is shocking and shameful. For the last seven years Amnesty has monitored, investigated and advocated on the mistreatment of immigrants in detention, some of the core problems seemed to stem from incompetence and mismanagement. But it seems clear now that officials involved in immigration detention were regrettably quite competent at re-framing deaths due to neglect, and that detention facilities were in fact well coordinated in the cover up of ill-treatment and disregard.

Independent oversight and accountability is crucial to reforming a cruel detention system that is overused, under-scrutinized and where impunity is the rule and transparency the rare exception. While the US government has publicly stated its intent to reform the detention system, it has specifically rejected calls for enforceable rules as to the treatment of people in detention. According to the government, they are not necessary. The government is wrong. In Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty called for the adoption of enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities coupled with independent oversight and accountability for transgressions. Until this occurs, ICE will have the ability to arbitrarily deprive people of their liberty, abuse them without repercussion, and label them as criminals as some sort of justification for the mistreatment they are forced to endure in silence.

The Nightmarish Detention of U.S. Immigrants

(Originally posted in the Bell Gardens Sun)

Coming to the United States was a “dream come true” for Deda Makaj. Now 42, Deda fled Albania 20 years ago after enduring five years in a hard labor camp, the culmination of years of persecution he and his family suffered due to their anti-communist beliefs. He escaped to Greece in 1992 and, with the help of a charity in Athens, made it to California, where he was granted refugee protection and became a lawful permanent resident.

Over the next five years, he cobbled together his American dream, beginning with a minimum-wage job and eventually buying a dollar store. He met his wife Nadia, a refugee from Afghanistan, and they had three children.

Then a combination of bad luck and naïveté tore Deda’s American dream apart. He unwittingly bought a stolen car, and he falsified his income on a home loan application upon the encouragement of his loan officer. After serving 16 months in jail for his crimes, he was immediately placed in immigration detention in Arizona. There, he spent the next four years fighting deportation until he was finally released on bond late last year.

Deda bore witness to the human rights catastrophe that is the U.S. immigration detention system: immigrants imprisoned for months before getting a hearing and sometimes years before a decision; abuse from criminal prisoners; suicides. By the time Deda was released, his business had failed.

Amnesty International’s recent report, Jailed Without Justice, details the U.S. immigration detention system, a purgatory of legal limbo where the core American value of due process does not apply. On any given night, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) warehouses more than 30,000 immigrants in prisons and jails—a number that has tripled in the past 12 years. Among them, surely, are immigrants who have committed deportable offenses or are undocumented—but the jailed also include large numbers of legal permanent residents, individuals seeking protection from political or religious persecution, survivors of torture and human trafficking, U.S. citizens mistakenly ensnared in immigration raids, and parents of U.S. citizen children.

Investigative news reports have exposed a litany of human rights abuses in the detention facilities, including physical violence, the use of restraints, and substandard medical care. While in detention, immigrants and asylum seekers are often unable to obtain the legal assistance necessary to prepare viable claims for adversarial and complex court proceedings. Sometimes they cannot even make a simple phone call to obtain documents that would prove they should go free. Some immigrants become so desperate at the prospect of indefinite detention that they agree to deportation despite valid claims.

Amnesty International has launched a campaign to pressure our government to honor its human rights obligations. Legislation is needed so that detention is used only as a measure of last resort, after non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or reasonable bond, have failed. Lawmakers who fear anti-immigrant backlash might consider the secondary benefits to honoring our moral imperative: the average cost of detaining a migrant is $95 per person/per day, while alternatives to detention cost as little as $12 per person/per day and yield up to a 99 percent success rate, according to ICE, as measured by immigrants’ appearance in immigration courts for removal hearings.

Congress should also pass legislation to ensure due process for all within our borders, including the right to a prompt individualized hearing before an immigration judge. Currently, ICE field office directors have the power to decide whether to detain someone; yet to incarcerate an individual for months, or even years, before a court makes a judgment on the individual’s case is an absurd negation of our nation’s stated commitment to the rule of law.

Finally, the U.S. government must adopt enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities that house immigrants. These standards can only be overseen and enforced by an independent body that has the power to hold ICE accountable.

For more than a decade, the federal government has underwritten the unchecked expansion of ICE’s power. The result is a detention system riddled with inconsistencies, errors and widespread human rights violations. Tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance. The time has come for the U.S. government to apply the rule of law to those within its own borders.

Posted in USA