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.


Utah's Immigrant Hit List

Last week, at least two Utah state employees were involved in distributing a list of 1,300 names of supposedly illegal immigrants. This 29-page list was sent out to Utah government offices and media and included such personalized details as social security numbers, addresses, and even pregnancy due dates. The Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, told CNN’s John King on Friday night that those listed have Hispanic names and not all of them are in the state illegally.

While Herbert condemned the actions saying the “release of such private, sensitive information is deplorable”, it isn’t just the violation of privacy rights and the rogue behavior of public servants that makes this incident so troubling.  It is also the irrepressible undercurrent of racially-based targeting of those with Hispanic surnames as outsiders, creating a climate of intimidation and fear in communities of color and among people of foreign national origin.

As emphasized in the Amnesty Report Jailed Without Justice, all people, whatever their immigrant or citizenship status, have fundamental human rights which include the right to privacy and the right to be free from police harassment. Utah Attorney General Shurtleff  acknowledged:

“Clearly, it’s not even meant as a blacklist. It’s more like a hit list. It is, I think to put people at fear, to terrorize, to get people mobilized to do things.”

I agree. State policymakers and officials must understand that discriminatory stunts such as “listgate” don’t occur in a vacuum.  This incident has to be viewed in the larger political context of states like Utah’s neighbor Arizona rushing to adopt harsh and restrictive immigration initiatives without regard to the human rights violations involved. In fact,  no one has been able to demonstrate persuasively how it will be possible to enforce Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070, without resorting to racial profiling, a blatant human rights violation.

Nevertheless, without a court-issued injunction to stop it,  SB1070 will take effect next week, not only requiring police to arrest and detain anyone they reasonably suspect of being present in Arizona without a legal immigration status, but giving Arizona citizens the power to sue the police if they do not do so.  You can speak out against SB1070 by sending a message to your senators.

When governors and other public officials pass laws allowing themselves to abrogate the human rights they are otherwise obligated to uphold, it’s no wonder that state workers are emboldened to engage in lawless and discriminatory conduct that terrorizes communities. There’s simply no justification for violating human rights. What’s next? Tolerance of hate crimes?

Posted in USA

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

The Latest Buzz on our New Immigration Detention Report

Here’s what the papers are saying about the report we released today, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA.

USA Today: “Opposing view: We’re seeing progress” By Dora Schriro, special adviser to Homeland Security Secretary

I have learned that the best way to achieve change is to work closely with partners inside and outside of government, including vital organizations such as Amnesty International, which will issue a report raising concerns about immigration detention later today. I will carefully consider this important report.”

San Francisco Chronicle: “New report blasts U.S. on immigrant detainees

More than 400,000 people a year are detained by immigration officials in the United States – including undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants who run afoul of the law and asylum seekers who come fleeing persecution – but according to a report released today by Amnesty International, conditions are often deplorable and detainees are routinely denied due process.”

Bloomberg News: “Immigrants, Citizens Languish in U.S. Detention, Report Says” By Jeff Bliss

Amnesty International recommends that detention become a last resort and that authorities refrain from harsh restraining methods. The New York-based human rights groups also said Congress should pass legislation that would ensure immigrants have individual hearings to determine the need for detention.”

San Jose Mercury News: “Amnesty International lambastes U.S. for treatment of immigrant detainees”  By Ken McLaughlin

In a scathing report on the treatment of immigration detainees held in detention centers and more than 300 local facilities such as the Santa Clara County Jail, Amnesty International charges the federal government violates human rights by allowing tens of thousands of people to languish in custody every year without receiving hearings to determine whether their detention is warranted.”

Posted in USA