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.

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Prison Lobby's Ties to Arizona Anti-Immigration Law

The [undocumented] person, without right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law. He was liable to jail sentences without ever committing a crime … Since he was the anomaly for which the general law did not provide, it was better for him to become an anomaly for which it did provide, that of the criminal. Hannah Arendt, 1951

An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility for illegal immigrants on July 30, 2010 in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

For almost two decades, legislators and Presidents have treated immigration detention as some sort of “magic bullet” that will deter would be immigrants from crossing the U.S. border, instill terror in communities so that immigrants will voluntarily leave, and criminalize individuals through incarceration if they choose to fight deportation because they are U.S. citizens, refugees, lawful permanent residents, or breadwinners with long-time ties to their U.S. families, communities and workplaces.

Today NPR reported that Arizona’s recent draconian immigration law, SB1070, was written in collusion with the leadership of for-profit prisons and their lobbyists. The law requires Arizona police to stop and ask for papers proving legal residency if the officer has “reasonable suspicion” to believe the person is undocumented. If the person can’t immediately produce papers, she will be arrested and detained. Lawsuits arguing that the law was unconstitutional were almost immediately filed because it would be almost impossible to “identify” an undocumented person without resorting to racial profiling.

Criminalizing immigrants through detention has proven to be no magic bullet in managing migratory trends, but it has certainly proven to be a golden goose for these private prison operators. As the President of Geo Group,Wayne Calabrese, explained to its investors, according to NPR:

“I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me, at least I think, there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”

Depriving someone of their liberty through detention is a very coercive measure, which carries a strong stigma and severely impacts on individual rights. Criminalizing immigrants, not only by imposing criminal penalties for entering or remaining in the U.S without permission, but also by stigmatizing and criminalizing third parties who care for them, may have the effect of limiting or entirely denying protection and access to fundamental human rights, such as adequate housing or health care.

At the same time, documentation shows that “inflexible policies of exclusion, which are enforced through severe punishments of a penal nature and deportation for their breach, feed directly into the hands of traffickers,” who each year enslave thousands of women, men and children in the U.S., while the federal government adamantly declares its intention to protect trafficked persons.

For years, advocates have linked the massive growth in immigration detention with the exponential profits reaped by private prisons. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has picked up the enormous bill for a prison system that is widely viewed as cruel, inept and dysfunctional. It’s not good immigration policy, but it’s a terrific business strategy.

Tell Your Senators to Support the DREAM Act!

This Tuesday Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would include the DREAM Act in a defense authorization bill.  The DREAM Act will help thousands of committed students and military officers to legalize their status in the United States.  Currently, they face unique barriers to higher education, are unable to work legally in the U.S., and often live in constant fear of exposure to immigration authorities.

The DREAM Act would provide certain conditional legal status, if students attend college or join the military. It would also allow immigrant students access to higher education by returning to states the authority to determine who qualifies for in-state tuition. Amnesty International supports the DREAM Act because it upholds significant human rights goals including the right to education and the right to family life and unity.

This is an incredible opportunity to fulfill the human rights of young immigrants in the United States. Urge your Senator to support passage of the Dream Act now!

Call the US Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121

Passage of the Dream Act will support a variety of human rights obligations including:

1. Right to Education:
Currently, undocumented children in the US are constitutionally guaranteed the right to access public education. However, their ability to complete high school, as well as the opportunity to pursue university studies, is undermined by their lack of legal status. Undocumented children are ineligible for federal financial aid for higher education and, in most states, for in-state tuition at public universities.

Education is a right worthy of protection itself. It is also an indispensable means of realizing other human rights. All children, without discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of their status or the status of their parents, have a right to education. General Comment No. 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes that states are obliged to ensure that education is accessible to everyone, without discrimination, within the jurisdiction of the state. Accessibility includes non-discrimination, physical accessibility, and economic accessibility.

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Human and Immigrants' Rights Movement Reacts to Arizona Defiance

Amnesty International is extremely disappointed that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law SB1070, a bill that will significantly increase the likelihood of racial profiling, arbitrary arrests, and detentions in the state. By forcing Arizona police, the vast majority of whom opposed this law, to implement it or face lawsuits is bad policy and will drastically undermine communication between communities of color and the police who are supposed to keep them safe.

As the governor said when signing the bill, national immigration legislation is desperately needed, but the absence of it does not abdicate the governor’s own responsibility to preserve, promote, and protect the human rights of every individual in Arizona, whether citizen, resident, or visitor. Human rights exist regardless of nationality, ethnicity or immigration status. In passing SB1070, Arizona public officials have ignored this truth to the detriment of every individual who passes through the state.

Tell Arizona's Governor to Veto SB1070!!!

UPDATE: Much to our dismay, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed the immigration bill (SB1070) on Friday. We will continue the fight for immigrant rights.

The Arizona House and Senate have passed a bill (SB1070) that would empower police officers to stop and interrogate every individual in the state regarding citizenship status and make it a crime to be an undocumented person in Arizona. If a person does not immediately present documents proving that she is legally in the US, she may be criminally prosecuted, jailed and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. The bill contains no safeguards against racial profiling and increases the likelihood of arbitrary arrest and detention. These are all human rights violations. Because SB1070 has already passed in the Arizona house, it’s next stop is the governor’s office. Tell Governor Jan Brewer to veto the bill. Join activists across the US as they visit the Governor on April 20th to express opposition to this bill.

Governor Jan Brewer’s Contact Information:
Phone number: 1-800-253-0883
Email: azgov@az.gov

The scapegoating of migrants, the deliberate fueling of fear and the nurturing of discriminatory, racist and xenophobic sentiments by some politicians and parts of the media have been accompanied by measures that have trampled on some of the most basic human rights of migrants, including the right to liberty and security of the person. Much of the public debate about migration is couched in terminology which is loaded and derogatory. People trying to enter another country are vilified as “illegal immigrants”, “gate-crashers”, and even as “invaders” seeking to breach the defenses of the US with malicious intent. The clear implication is that they are abusing the system and exploiting the generosity of states. Such descriptions create the impression not only that migrants have no right to enter, but that they have no rights at all.

The Right to be Free from Racial Profiling Discrimination

Discrimination through racial profiling is an assault on the very notion of human rights. It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as less than human. This is why international human rights law is grounded in the principle of non-discrimination. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated explicitly that they considered non-discrimination to be the basis of the Declaration.

Discrimination enshrined in law, for example, where the law is used to target individuals based on nationality or ethnicity, strips away human rights. Discrimination in law enforcement can mean that certain groups are viewed by the authorities as ”potential criminals” and so are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. It can also mean that they are more likely to suffer harsher treatment once in the criminal justice system.

Arbitrary Arrest and Detention

The right to liberty and security of the person is protected in Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US has signed and ratified. The right to a speedy trial is guaranteed under Article 9(3), which states that all detained arrestees are “entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release” and that it “should not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” Article 9(4) protects detainees from unlawful detention, stating that “[a]nyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.” Improper use of detention interferes with fundamental human rights crucial to protection of the inherent dignity of migrants. Migrants have the right to liberty and to freedom from arbitrary detention (Article 9 of the ICCPR; Articles 3 and 9 of the UDHR, Article 16 of the Migrant Workers’ Convention). This means that detention should be subject to constraints, including the requirement that the detention is in accordance with the law, justified in the individual case as a necessary and proportionate measure and subject to judicial review. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has adopted Deliberation No. 5 concerning the situation of immigrants and asylum-seekers. This sets out principles concerning people held in custody and a number of safeguards governing detention. These include the right of detainees to be told why they are being held, to communicate with the outside world, to have legal counsel and contact with consular authorities and to be brought promptly before a judicial or other authority. It also recommends that a maximum period of detention should be set by law and that custody may “in no case” be prolonged or indefinite

We'll Make Them Disappear

“If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.” So said James Pendergraph, former Executive Director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, in August 2008. I was in attendance at the Police Foundation National Conference where he made this bold assertion, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I actually asked the person next to me if he had just said what I thought he had just said and she affirmed it. Yes, he had just told an audience of police officers, sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could make people disappear. Was I in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship? Argentina during the dirty war? Sri Lanka, Iran or some other country where public officials boldly and publicly asserted such an awesome and illegal power? No, I was in the United States, where many ICE officers and their delegates run amok with almost no oversight or accountability.

More scary: in August 2008 James Pendergraph was in charge of managing and overseeing the 287(g) program, which delegates federal immigration enforcement authorities to state and local law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, it is not at all shocking that today the DHS Office of the Inspector General released a report on the 287(g) program outlining a variety of grave concerns including woefully inadequate safeguards against racial profiling and other civil rights violations, deficient training and supervision of 287(g) empowered police officers, misuse of the 287(g) authority, including one incident in which the victim in an accident was brought to a jail to be processed for deportation, and misleading information to the public about the 287(g) program from the highest levels of ICE leadership to sheriffs on the ground – unfortunately, also not out of the ordinary these days.

For many years, communities subject to the 287(g) program have raised and fought against a variety of unconstitutional acts by police officers acting under this authority. Without a meaningful complaint mechanism the denigration of their human and constitutional rights has continued without acknowledgement or remedy. In fact, it is the outrageous position of ICE that it has no legal responsibility for the actions of 287(g) officers, even though Memorandums of Agreement make clear that law enforcement may only perform immigration enforcement activities under ICE supervision.

Today’s report from the OIG is important and timely. ICE has repeatedly stated that it must do better and can do better at prioritizing who is arrested, detained and deported, and what conditions they will be held in while their fate is decided. Here are a few ideas for how to turn this rhetoric into reality:

• Stop the use and misuse of state and local police officers by suspending all 287(g) agreements.

• Develop performance goals for 287(g) officers that do not focus on the number of immigrants encountered by officers as it incentives unjustifiable stops and arrests.

• Ensure that the training and guidance provided to 287(g) officers thoroughly prepares them to make critical decisions, including whether they will deprive people of their liberty, separate them from their families, and exile them to countries they may not know and governments they may well fear.

• Train all officers, including DHS officers, that every person stopped by a law enforcement officer has fundamental human rights that cannot be denied or ignored including :
o Freedom from torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (ICCPR and CAT),
o Freedom from discrimination such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (ICCPR),
o Recognition as a person before the law (ICCPR),
o Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (ICCPR),
o Best attainable standard of physical and mental health (ICESCR, ICERD, CEDAW, CRC), and
o Adequate food and water (ICESCR, CRC, CEDAW).

Haitian Disaster to US Detention

UPDATE:  The U.S. freed the 30 Haitian detainees from immigrant detention facilities tonight after they spent about two months behind bars.

Here we go again: one more egregious example of the discriminatory treatment of Haitians in immigration law, and another in how the drastic impact of mandatory detention devastates already traumatized people. Unlike any other nationality, US policy requires that all Haitians seeking entry into the US be detained until it is decided by immigration authorities whether they will be admitted. There are no exceptions, and the consequences of this draconian policy were illuminated in a New York Times story today reporting that at least 30 Haitians evacuated by the US government out of Haiti were immediately detained in jails upon their arrival to the US, and have remained in jail since January.

Who are these people? According to the New York Times article, none have criminal histories. Many were rescued from the rubble of the Haitian earthquake. One is 18 years-old and the sole breadwinner for his two younger brothers. But he can’t support his siblings when he is jailed in Florida. Many have relatives in the US who will provide them with shelter and care, but immigration authorities won’t release them. Apparently 33 Haitians were released this afternoon, but like so much Immigration and Customs Enforcement action lately, it seems to be related to embarrassing newspaper exposure rather than good, uniform policy.

Discrimination of any kind, including nationality, is strictly prohibited in all core international human rights instruments. For this reason alone, arriving Haitians should not be detained unless they pose a demonstrable danger to the US or flight risk. The arbitrariness of the Haitians’ detention is made clearer by the fact that the US government has halted all deportations to Haiti indefinitely. From a purely fiscal perspective, they’re not going anywhere, so why spend thousands of dollars locking Haitians up in jail when they could be working and contributing to the rebuilding of their country? Haitians arriving since the earthquake should be immediately considered for release to family, friends or other sponsors, and provided with permission to work so that they can support themselves here and their families and friends in Haiti.

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.

30 Years On Refugee Rights Still in Flux

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the US Refugee Act of 1980, a bipartisan bill that made concrete the US government’s commitment to people fleeing persecution and human rights violations.

There are more than 40 million refugees and other displaced people in the world and this number is neither a temporary problem nor the random product of chance events. It is the predictable consequence of human rights crises, the result of decisions made by individuals who wield power over other people’s lives.

From the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat people and refugees fleeing the former Soviet Union, to today’s Iraqi and Bhutanese refugees, the refugee resettlement program has been an enduring symbol of the US government’s commitment to protect those who flee persecution.

Unfortunately, in the 30 years since passage of the Refugee Act, US law, policy and practice has often ignored the rights of asylum seekers inside the US. The Refugee Protection Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Leahy (D-VT) and his colleagues this week, goes a long way toward restoring US respect and protection for the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and others on the move by addressing dire US immigration detention conditions, protecting victims of terrorism from being defined as terrorists, requiring non-discriminatory interdiction policies, and providing protection for stateless people in the US.

One of the cruelest ironies for people seeking protection in the US – many of whom have been detained and tortured at home – is that they are subject to mandatory detention as soon as they request “safety” here. Despite the fact that this law is in direct violation of obligations under the Refugee Convention, the US continues to use detention as a means to deter refugees from seeking asylum or to encourage them to abandon their asylum applications.

If passed, the Refugee Act of 2010 will make critical changes to US immigration law consistent with international obligations and the language and intent of the 1980 Refugee Act. For example, it will ensure that all asylum seekers who have passed a “credible fear” interview will be immediately considered for release from detention.

Senator Leahy’s bill includes other key safeguards for the human rights of detained refugees and asylum seekers. The bill establishes a nation-wide, secure “alternatives to detention” program, which will reduce the unnecessary and undue detention of asylum seekers and immigrants who pose no threat. In addition, the bill makes minimum standards of humane treatment in detention enforceable by law. These provisions will ensure protection of the basic human rights and human dignity of those seeking a new life in the US.

Amnesty International USA applauds the efforts of Senator Leahy and his colleagues to pass legislation repositioning the US as a champion of refugee rights in the 21st century, and urges all members of Congress to support this act.

- Sung In Marshall contributed to this blog

Trail of Dreams Is Trail of Hope

I found myself on the steps of the courthouse with other Amnesty International members. We were holding signs that read “Immigrant Rights Are Human Rights!” and holding our heads even higher. I was proud to be there. But I was prouder of the students making history by walking 1,500 miles for immigrants’ rights. And Atlanta was just one stop along their crucial march for legal recognition, the Trail of Dreams 2010.

Carlos Roa, Juan Rodriguez, Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, photo credit: Joeff Davis/www.Joeff.com

Carlos Roa, Juan Rodriguez, Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, photo credit: Joeff Davis/www.Joeff.com

The Trail of Dreams is a trail of hope. It is headed by young people, Felipe, Gaby, Carlos, and Juan, who may lack legal recognition in the US, but carry their human rights. It is a 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington D.C to raise awareness about broken US immigration laws and to demand fair and humane immigration law and policy. It is a journey for these students, two of them undocumented, in their fight for rights.

The students walking represent the thousands of young immigrants who were brought to this country in their childhoods by parents who were trying to provide them with a better life. Many live in daily fear of arrest and deportation and have spent their entire lives hiding, understanding that they are considered ‘illegal’ human beings by some lawmakers and media pundits.

Every day in America, hundreds of thousands of young immigrants are unable to fully participate in society. They attend school, play sports and achieve good grades, but are prohibited from receiving any benefits such as in-state tuition to universities they dreamed of attending because they do not have lawful status. Worse, current immigration law provides no avenues for the vast majority of these students to legalize their status, no matter how well they do in school or how much they contribute to their communities. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST