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.

Qing Hong Wu Pardoned!

Qing Hong Wu, the individual spotlighted in my previous blog entry has been pardoned by Governor David Paterson of New York. It is hoped by Mr. Wu’s family and friends that the pardon will stop deportation proceedings against Mr. Wu, result in his release from immigration detention, and lead to his successful application for US citizenship. The fact that it took a governor’s pardon to prevent his inevitable deportation, despite Mr. Wu’s long ties and significant contributions to the US, is an important statement about the rigidity and arbitrariness of current immigration law.

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

Immigrants Locked Away in Legal Limbo

New research shows immigrants, including asylum seekers fleeing torture and long-time lawful permanent residents, are being unjustly detained in the U.S. Tens of thousands of people sit locked up in a broken and cruel system of detention with no right to even a hearing to determine if their detention is warranted.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

Many languish separated from their families, commingled with people serving criminal sentences, and sometimes denied access to attorneys, family members and adequate medical care. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could issue new regulations that would quickly solve many of these problems. But instead, just three weeks ago, the office in charge of these policies testified before Congress that it plans to detain almost a hundred thousand more immigrants this year than last.

The new research outlined in the Amnesty International report released today, Jailed without Justice, shows that:

Lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture are being detained while they fight for protection
• US citizens and lawful permanent residents can be detained for years without any review of their custody
• Meaningful oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent
• Individuals in detention often lack treatment for their medical needs and 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years

Our findings are similar to what I’ve seen working in the immigration system for a decade. Before I joined Amnesty International’s staff, I represented immigrants and asylum seekers in San Francisco. I never met the first detained person whom I represented. He was a nineteen-year-old from Sierra Leone who had witnessed the murder of his father and neighbors. I will call him Joseph. The night of the massacre, he slipped into a cargo ship not knowing where he was going or how long he would be at sea. Joseph was discovered by the ship’s captain and turned over to immigration authorities upon arrival in the U.S. He was detained in Texas and applied for asylum without the help of an attorney. His case was denied. To be granted asylum, a person must show that he fears persecution on account of a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Joseph belonged to a particular tribe and his village was targeted for this reason. Under immigration law, a tribe is often considered either a race or nationality for purposes of asylum protection.

In detention, Joseph was unable to secure documents to support his claim and in representing himself, he did not know what was important to share with the immigration judge and government attorney. I learned of Joseph’s case through a pro bono program and agreed to write his appeal. In the appeal I asked that the case be reopened so that Joseph could submit documents supporting his claim. Joseph’s appeal was denied. The Board of Immigration Appeals thought Joseph had not provided evidence that he was persecuted on account of a protected ground. I believed this decision was wrong and advised Joseph to appeal, but he couldn’t face months or years more in detention with an uncertain outcome. He was deported.

In San Francisco I could meet my clients in jail, but communication was very difficult. Oftentimes they were despondent and we spent a lot of time talking about why it was worth it to continue fighting. Preparing a detained client for court was extremely difficult because often the client’s wrist was shackled to the table, there was very little privacy, and we had limited amount of time together. Securing documents could take an exceptionally long time.

When I joined Amnesty International, immigrants in detention were never far from my mind. As part of the research team assigned to look at immigrant detention, I went back to San Francisco to document detention practices in the Bay Area. It was disturbing to see that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies on detention had not improved, and in many instances, seemed more draconian. Detained immigrants still faced an indefinite number of months and years behind bars; securing affordable counsel was exceptionally hard; and immigrants were forced to wear prison jumpsuits, shackled to each other or a table when they were outside their cells, and their time was limited when spouses and children came to visit. It was heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Depriving people of their liberty without any right to a hearing is contrary to the constitution and American values. As the Supreme Court found in the Guantanamo cases, the constitution does not permit the U.S. to lock people up and throw away the key. Yet, that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of immigrants (and some US citizens) as they go through deportation proceedings in the U.S. The law must change to reflect international human rights standards and U.S. values.

Posted in USA