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U.N. Expert Hears Problems With Immigration Detention Medical Care

Tom Jawetz,
National Prison Project
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June 17, 2008

Yesterday, the ACLU formally welcomed a fact-finding mission to the U.S. by Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Early this morning, my colleague Jody Kent and I had the opportunity to personally welcome him to our Washington, D.C., office with a cup of coffee and some conversation regarding deaths in U.S. jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities.

The issue of deaths in immigration custody has gotten a good deal of press attention recently, and two weeks ago Congress held a hearing on the broader problem of poor medical care in immigration detention and the lack of transparency and oversight over U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the entity responsible for immigration detention. (You can read our testimony at the hearing.)

We spoke with Special Rapporteur Alston about the breadth of the problem, and offered some thoughts about what we believe might be done to address the problem. One important start is the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008, a bill that has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) (H.R. 5950) and in the Senate by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (S. 3005). The Act would require ICE to create some important policies that would help to ensure that detainees receive basic medical services, and that Congress and the Inspectors General of both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have an opportunity to perform necessary oversight over in-custody deaths.

But while the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act is an important step in the right direction, it is certainly not a panacea. As we explained to Special Rapporteur Alston, the key problem is our country’s overreliance on detention in general, but more specifically with respect to vulnerable populations such as survivors of torture, asylum-seekers, and people with severe medical and mental health problems who pose no danger to society and clearly are not a flight risk.

For these individuals and others, they are alternatives to secure detention that are more humane, less punitive, and extremely effective at ensuring attendance at immigration proceedings. The bean counters out there will also appreciate how much taxpayer money the federal government could save by pursuing these superior alternatives.

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