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.
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.
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.
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.