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International Body to Investigate Immigration Detention in U.S.

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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July 21, 2009

Throughout this week, representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will visit immigration detention centers in Arizona and Texas, as part of a fact-finding mission to examine U.S. immigration detention conditions and due process rights. The ACLU of Arizona and the ACLU of Texas along with local grassroots organizations will be accompanying and coordinating local meetings in their respective states. The visit, at the invitation of the Obama administration, marks a continued effort on the part of immigrants and human rights advocates who have been working to address egregious human rights violations in U.S. immigration detention system.

The commission, a regional human rights body headquartered in Washington, D.C., and a part of the Organization of American States, regularly investigates allegations of human rights violations in the western hemisphere through general hearings and on-site visits and fact-finding missions in countries (including the United States). At the end of this year, the commission will publish a report sharing its findings, and then collaborate with the U.S. government to implement recommendations.

As you may know, the ACLU has been working hard on this issue. Last week, along with Human Rights Watch and other organizations, we sent a letter to the commission and highlighted our serious concerns regarding women's access to reproductive and medical care in immigration detention. The ACLU National Prison Project and Immigrants Rights Project have worked to ensure the humane treatment of incarcerated immigrants and the ACLU co-sponsored a recent hill briefing on the impact of immigration enforcement on women with a focus on detention conditions. In December 2007, the ACLU of Massachusetts issued "Detention and Deportation in the Age of ICE ," a report documenting the experience of 40 detained persons through the system of detention set up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and recently briefed the Commission with materials about the retaliatory transfers of immigrants. The commission has also taken up this issue before: In October 2008, a hearing was held concerning due process violations in the U.S.' enforcement of immigrant detention and deportation policies. (Listen to the October 2008 hearing online .)

Despite the Obama administration's concerted effort to facilitate the visit of the commission and give it full access to immigration detention facilities, Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who is under DOJ investigation ) has already denied members of the commission access to certain Arizona jail facilities. Sheriff Arpaio's actions raise questions about safe and humane conditions in those jails. Alessandra Soler Meetze, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona stated Monday:

The visit of the IACHR was a critical opportunity to shed light on conditions at [Maricopa County Sheriff's Office] jails…There's no doubt that Arpaio's decision to use law enforcement resources to enforce civil immigration laws has contributed to serious overcrowding and even greater problems related to the health and safety of prisoners. As recently found by the federal court, thousands of detainees are still being denied adequate services in basic areas, including medical and mental health care.

Sheriff Arpaio's move to block access is reminiscent of a larger pattern under the Bush administration of blocking international experts from access to controversial detention facilities. In 2007, the U.N. independent expert on the rights of migrants was denied access to Hutto , the notorious family detention facility in Texas as well as a detention center in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Similarly, in 2005, four U.N. human rights experts issued a statement rebuking the Bush administration for not allowing full access to detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison.

We hope that the Obama administration will address the egregious human rights violations in the immigration detention system and distance itself from Bush administration policies. The Obama administration has already pledged greater transparency and accountability, and this visit represents an important step forward in achieving those goals. Once the commission's findings are issued, the Obama administration must incorporate the recommendations into domestic policies on immigration detention to adequately reform immigration detention.

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