The post-election immigration policy focus has rightly been on the pressing need to establish a path for aspiring Americans to become full members of their communities.
However, one of the most dire aspects of the immigration system is the ongoing crisis in mass immigration detention. Detained immigrants face widespread abuse and denial of basic rights, at enormous taxpayers’ expense. The number of detainees is unnecessarily high and must be drastically reduced.
As part of Detention Watch Network’s Expose and Close campaign calling for the immediate closure of the10 worst Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, the ACLU and its allies have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to take these vital first steps toward reforming a detention system where immigrants suffer in deplorable conditions.
The Department of Homeland Security has created a massive immigration detention complex over the past decade. In 2002, the now-defunct INS detained 202,000 individuals. By 2011, that number reached 429,000 per year. Detention beds in FY 2003 numbered 18,000. The current level of 34,000 is an 89 percent increase, with nearly half of those beds contracted from private prison companies. DHS has rightly asked Congress to reduce funding to a level of 32,800 beds, but this would not go far enough. Immigrants who do not pose any risk are being routinely detained despite enormous costs of $2 billion annually. Detention costs range from $122 to $164 per person per day, while alternative methods cost from 30 cents to $14. Immigration detainees are overwhelmingly non-violent, and supervision methods are available when necessary, without the economic and human costs inflicted by incarceration. In many instances, the government fails to provide detainees with the basic due process of a bond hearing to determine whether they even need to be locked up in the first place.
Immigrants (and even some U.S. citizens) in the 10 worst ICE facilities – and many of the other 240 ICE facilities across the country – have been subjected to denial of medical services, poor sanitation conditions, abusive treatment by detention officers, and unreasonable restrictions on family visits. At the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, Roberto Martinez Medina, a 39-year-old immigrant, died of a treatable heart infection after a physician failed to review the intake medical examination that a government investigation revealed was happening on a systematic basis.. Immigrants held at Pinal County Jail in Arizona have been subjected to horrible sanitary conditions, including food on dirty trays, worms in food and faucets, and overcrowded cells, including some with 10 men and only one toilet. Across the country, including at facilities in southern California, many individuals have faced verbal abuse, including racial and ethnic slurs as well as derogatory comments based on individuals’ perceived immigration status. There are also reports of physical abuse, including individuals being thrown against walls by guards.
These are just a few examples of abuse and poor conditions, which are comprehensively laid out in each of the 10 Expose and Close reports (listed below). For every reported incident there are many more where the victims remain silent for fear of retaliation by guards or a negative impact on their immigration cases.
Currently, legally enforceable civil detention standards that would prevent these incidents and conditions do not exist. At a minimum, the president should act now to terminate ICE’s contracts with these worst-offending facilities. But more importantly, the time has come for the administration to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on mass immigration detentionand look to alternative forms of supervision that are familiar and have long been effective in the criminal justice system. Alternatives to detention for those not convicted of violent crimes would save more than $1.6 billion a year through reducing annual detention costs by 80 percent, while ensuring an observed appearance rate of 94 percent. The president understands his re-election as a mandate to tackle immigration reform: a starting point must be to act with fiscal responsibility and moral integrity in shutting down ICE’s worst facilities and end our dismal reliance on mass immigration lockup.
Ten Worst ICE Detention Facilities
Stewart Detention Center (Georgia)
Irwin County Detention Facility (Georgia)
Pinal County Jail (Arizona)
Theo Lacy Detention Center (California)
Baker County Jail (Florida)
Polk County Detention Facility (Texas)
Etowah County Jail (Alabama)
Houston Processing Center (Texas)
Hudson County Jail (New Jersey)
Tri-County Detention Center (Illinois)