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Lampooning Immigration Jails While Exploiting the War on Women: Does the House Immigration Subcommitee Have Any Standards of Decency?

Chris Rickerd,
Senior Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
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March 28, 2012

This afternoon, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement is holding a hearing called “Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards.” (webcast here, ACLU statement here). The hearing’s title and premise insult the U.S. Constitution by denigrating Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s belated attempt to introduce basic, constitutionally required standards of care for the nearly 400,000 people held annually in immigration detention facilities. These men and women are detained for alleged civil, not criminal, immigration violations; many of them have U.S. citizen children and other relatives.

Far from being “hospitality guidelines,” in Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s distortion, ICE’s standards respond to a crisis of human rights abuses in the increasingly privatized immigration detention system. All they do is create a rudimentary floor of rules for conditions of confinement, addressing things like: the shackling of pregnant women; women’s health care including routine pelvic and breast examinations, Pap smear and STI tests, and mammograms; a minimum of recreation; and sanitation and drinking water, which were often absent in the past (implementation of the standards is another matter, as they don’t yet apply anywhere).

The ACLU sees ICE’s standards as only a first step; many of them are flawed and incomplete. For example, they fall short in failing to protect immigration detainees adequately from sexual assault, a systemic problem in ICE detention which should be overseen by the Department of Justice under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. But the standards are a necessary response to years of ICE detention failures, including at least 129 deaths since 2003.

In today’s New York Times, writer Edwidge Danticat described her family’s experience with ICE detention, where her 81-year-old uncle died after fleeing violence in Haiti and seeking asylum in Miami. She remembers:

His medications for high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate were taken away, and when he fell ill during a hearing, a Krome nurse accused him of faking his illness. When he was finally transported, in leg chains, to the prison ward of a nearby hospital, it was already too late. He died the next day. My uncle’s brief and deadly stay in the United States immigration system was no holiday. Detention was no holiday . . . for Hiu Lui Ng, a 34-year-old Chinese immigrant with a fractured spine who was dragged on the floor and refused the use of a wheelchair in an ICE detention center in Rhode Island.

Mr. Ng’s surviving family is represented by the ACLU of Rhode Island in a lawsuit, one of many cases, settlements, and reports used by the ACLU to improve immigration detention conditions and avoid more harms. ICE’s standards dodge the fundamental question of why there is overincarceration in immigration detention of people who are neither a flight risk nor a danger to society.

To parody the standards as gifting a vacation to sexual assault survivors and immigrants suffering from untreated medical conditions is a shameful low point for the House Immigration Subcommittee. Given ICE’s shocking track record, why is the subcommittee eager to mandate cruelty in the machinery of deportation?

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