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Unjustified Immigration Detention Reaches New Lows

Tanaz Moghadam,
Immigrants' Rights Project
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April 2, 2010

A Wednesday New York Times article portrayed the anguish of 30 Haitians that were evacuated from the earthquake in January, only to be greeted by a jail cell upon their arrival to the U.S. One earthquake survivor, Jackson, languished in jail for over two months after being pulled out from beneath the rubble of his destroyed home in Haiti. The article gives voice to yet another story of the inhumane and unnecessary immigration detention system that incarcerates some 30,000 noncitizens daily.

After the New York Times exposed the story, Jackson and the other earthquake survivors were released yesterday, demonstrating just how pointless their incarceration was in the first place.

Indeed, in recent weeks we have learned of several cases showing the senselessness of immigration detention and how current Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) procedures fail to enable deserving individuals to obtain release. Guillermo Gomez and Jose Antonio Franco, two mentally disabled legal permanent residents, spent years in custody, lost in the system because they were incompetent to appear in removal proceedings. After lawyers filed suit and alerted the media, ICE released them within days. Likewise, ICE recently released two longtime residents, who had been detained for years, as soon as a federal court ruled that they were entitled to bond hearings. And Jerry Lemaine, a lifelong permanent resident, spent three years jailed in Texas on a simple marijuana violation until a new deportation officer suddenly decided there was no reason to keep him in custody.

These stories highlight the need for independent oversight of the detention system. Lawsuits and media coverage should not be necessary to secure someone’s release. Detainees have no right to appointed counsel, so not surprisingly, the vast majority are unrepresented and cannot broadcast their stories through the megaphone provided by reporters at major news outlets. Before wasting years of their life in confinement, noncitizens should be provided individualized bond hearings, presided over by neutral adjudicators, to ensure that they are being held legitimately or that they are released if they pose no flight risk or danger. If there is no reason to imprison them, noncitizens should be released on bond, especially if they, like Jackson, have relatives in the U.S. eagerly awaiting their release.

Back in October, ICE conceded that the immigration detention system is broken (PDF). Months later, nothing has been done. To the contrary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has indicated the need to increase jail beds to reach deportation quotas. Rather than fill beds with individuals like Jackson or Jerry, the administration should stop its overreliance on costly and unnecessary incarceration and mandate procedures to prevent unjustified detention.

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