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Locking Up Immigrants and Throwing Away the Key

Laura Arandes,
Washington Legislative Office
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July 14, 2011

There’s no sugarcoating the destructive effect that Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) bill will have on people’s lives. H.R. 1932 imposes indefinite detention on immigrants who have been ordered removed but cannot be deported through no fault of their own.

Take Many Uch, for example. Mr. Uch works two jobs and is married to a U.S. citizen. He is an integral member of the Cambodian community in Seattle, participating in a youth organizing group and serving as a mentor and community mediator. But as a teenager, Mr. Uch got involved in a gang and was convicted of robbery as the getaway car driver. After serving his criminal sentence, he was taken into immigration custody, where he languished in detention for over two years. The government was unable to return him to his native Cambodia, but there was no mechanism for Mr. Uch to argue that he posed no danger to the community and should be released. Finally, he received a court hearing where a federal judge reviewed his file and determined that he did not need to be detained. Last year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire pardoned Mr. Uch for his crime.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee debated H.R.1932. This bill would strip individuals like Mr. Uch of the right to appear before a neutral arbiter to argue that their detention is unjustified. It directly contradicts recent Supreme Court decisions reiterating that the fundamental guarantee of due process applies to all individuals present in the United States.

A recent Physicians for Human Rights report documents the severe and long-lasting effects of holding people in indefinite detention, noting that “without any information about or ability to control the fact or terms of their confinement, detainees develop feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that lead to debilitating depressive symptoms, chronic anxiety, despair, dread of what may or may not happen in the future, as well as to [post-traumatic stress disorder] and suicidal ideation.” Rep. Smith has provided no compelling justification to support subjecting thousands of individuals to such debilitating conditions of confinement.

Rep. Smith said last week: “Just because a criminal immigrant cannot be returned to their home country does not mean they should be freed into our communities.” But no one is arguing that dangerous criminals may never be detained, only that categorically locking up dangerous and nondangerous immigrants forever is legally wrong and inhumane. Both the criminal justice system and civil commitment systems are in place to protect our communities from truly dangerous people. Instead of attempting to amend or reform these systems to achieve Rep. Smith’s goals, this bill creates a new Guantánamo-esque legal limbo where immigrants are detained indefinitely without charge.

And it does this at the high cost of $122 per detainee per day or $45,000 per detainee per year. As the American Immigration Council has proclaimed, this bill “creates more problems than solutions.”

The ACLU and many organizations and individuals oppose this bill because it would be ruinously costly and unconstitutional, and would needlessly subject thousands of people to the physically and psychologically brutalizing effects of indefinite detention. The bill has been passed out of committee and could be voted on by the House at any time. Please contact your congressperson today and urge him or her to oppose H.R.1932.

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