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Two Big Wins for Civil Liberties in Monday's Immigration Markup

Sarah Mehta,
Senior Policy Counsel,
Alex Berger,
Legislative Assistant,
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May 21, 2013

In yesterday’s flurry of activity in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the comprehensive immigration reform bill, there were two big wins for civil liberties: Blumenthal 2, an amendment that limits solitary confinement in immigration detention, and Blumenthal 8, an amendment that restricts Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers from conducting raids in schools, churches or hospitals.

First, Blumenthal 2. Solitary confinement means physical and social isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day with little or no human contact – generally in a small cell with a solid steel door, a bunk, a toilet and a sink – day in, day out. This amendment is critically important because it establishes a broad framework specifying when solitary confinement can be used to house immigration detainees, places limits on the use of such confinement in non-criminal settings, and requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop effective oversight mechanisms. Further, it prohibits the use of solitary for those under 18, limits its use for those with significant mental disabilities and curbs its use for punitive purposes. The adoption of the amendment takes positive steps forward in fixing a serious injustice the extent of which has only recently come to light: although they are non-criminal detainees, over 300 aspiring Americans daily are subjected to the harshest form of imprisonment within our justice system, with a majority confined for a prolonged period. By adopting the amendment, the Committee has made it more likely that such abusive practices will end.

Second, Blumenthal 8. Immigration raids are a terrifying, traumatic, and all-too-common experience in immigrant communities. This amendment restricts ICE and CBP from conducting raids in “sensitive locations” unless they have prior supervisory approval or there is an emergency. This includes areas near schools, hospitals and churches. This amendment is an overdue response to the fears and experiences of many communities who cannot access critical services for themselves and their kids–many of whom are U.S. citizens–because of harassment, intimidation and the threat of arrest by immigration agents. With this amendment, kids and their parents will be able to attend school, participate in religious services, and get necessary medical attention without fear of being trapped by immigration enforcement agents.

In recent years, CBP agents have been stationed in emergency rooms, interrogating patients as they attempt to get life-saving treatment. As a result, many immigrants or people with undocumented family members are afraid to seek critical medical help for themselves or their families. Similarly, around the country, there have been complaints about ICE or CBP officers waiting outside of churches and other religious centers to arrest people who are merely trying to participate in religious activities with their families—as is their right. This amendment strikes the right balance between protecting – and respecting – communities and allowing ICE and CBP to conduct their business with fair and reasonable limitations. For example, the amendment allows ICE and CBP to enter these sensitive locations if they have prior supervisory permission or if there are “exigent circumstances”—for example, if a fugitive is dangerous and armed. But it also recognizes that no one is safer when communities live in fear while ICE and CBP, instead of focusing on the most dangerous fugitives, prevent pregnant women from reaching the hospital, families from going to pray, and kids from getting to school.

The ACLU will continue to monitor the immigration legislation and work to make certain that the rights of all people are upheld, protected and ensured under law.

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