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Human Rights Body Criticizes U.S. Immigration Detention System

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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July 29, 2009

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), at the invitation of the Obama administration, recently completed a weeklong visit to various immigration detention facilitates in Texas and Arizona. According to the IACHR, “the purpose of the visit was to gather information from detention officials, detainees and civil society organizations regarding immigration enforcement, detention, and due process issues in the United States.”

In a press release issued Tuesday, the IACHR made preliminary observations based on their visit and noted that “many men, women and children detained in those facilities are held in unacceptable conditions, and the right of those persons to due process remains, in many cases, compromised.”

The commission highlighted several areas of concern, especially the lack of government-funded lawyers particularly to minors in detention, the absence of enforceable immigration detention standards, and urged the U.S. government to consider alternatives to immigration detention – especially for those seeking asylum. Moreover, the IACHR “was troubled” about reports that the U.S. government was still considering the possibility of opening three more family detention facilities in addition to T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas and Berks County Shelter Care Facility in Pennsylvania (PDF).

Another issue which caught the attention of the commission is the use of solitary confinement for LGBT detainees, detainees with mental illnesses and other minority populations as a protective measure. The commission noted that the use of solitary confinement effectively punishes already vulnerable populations, and urged the U.S. government to “establish alternatives to protect vulnerable populations in detention and to provide the mentally ill with appropriate treatment in a proper environment.”

The commission also expressed concern over DHS localenforcement of immigration law programs without adequate and effective accountability or oversight. Earlier last week, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Arizona, refused to allow the commissioners access to his facilities. In response, the commission noted yesterday:

The Rapporteurship is concerned that the federal government was unable to facilitate the Maricopa County visit, as it raises serious doubt about the control the federal authorities have over how local law authorities enforce federal civil immigration laws. The Rapporteurship is concerned that the federal government might be unable to hold local law enforcement properly accountable for enforcing immigration laws with respect for basic human rights. With this in mind, the Rapporteurship is concerned by reports that the Department of Homeland Security intends to expand local enforcement of federal immigration laws.

The recent Maricopa example, the commission noted, illustrates yet another instance of how lack of oversight can be detrimental to improving conditions at immigration detention centers and can create additional problems such as racial profiling, which the ACLU and RWG documented as a pervasive problem across the country in a recent report submitted to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

In addition, yesterday the ACLU of Southern California and other immigrants’ rights organizations released a comprehensive report about failures in U.S. immigration detention centers and found that the rights of men and women in these centers “are routinely and systematically violated” despite claims by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to conduct a formal review of each detention facility on a yearly basis. The report is based on an analysis of hundreds of ICE, American Bar Association and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees detention facility review reports from 2001 through 2005 obtained under Freedom of Information requests and litigation. Ranjana Natarajan, a report co-author and former ACLU of Southern California attorney said:

At every level, federal, state and local jails and prisons have legal and binding rules they must abide. But in immigration detention, the government refuses to adopt binding rules. The result is utter disregard for basic humane conditions.Because we don’t have rules, we don’t have accountability.

The recent preliminary findings by the IACHR are hardly surprising, and illustrate how critically we need oversight, accountability and change in immigration detention centers. The recent Obama administration decision to expand local immigration enforcement programs (called “287(g)” programs) is particularly disturbing — especially when there is ample evidence showing their ineffectiveness and harm to the U.S.’ values and interests. Let’s hope the Obama administration will seriously consider the commission’s final report, to be issued at the end of this year, and work with civil society and Congress to find a positive solution in order to fix the broken and inhumane system of immigration detention.

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