Midwestern facilities that house immigrants facing deportation rely on an overly harsh prison model that lacks oversight and deprives many immigrants of legal recourse, according to a new report.
The report, prepared by the Heartland Alliance's Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, reiterated persistent criticisms of the nation's sprawling immigration detention system, which has grown apace as the number of annual deportations has steadily risen. While many immigrants facing deportation have no criminal record or have committed only minor misdemeanors, they are funneled through a system that critics say treats them as criminals.
It's not meant to be punitive, its simply part of the immigration process for the government to keep track of people who they believe should be deported while they go through their immigration proceedings, said Tara Tidwell-Cullen, director of communications at Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center. They're based on a correctional mindset that isn't appropriate to the immigrant detention population.
Detained Immigrants: Mixed-In With Incarcerated Criminals
Part of the problem, the report noted, is that the overburdened immigration system is increasingly entering agreements to place detained immigrants in state or county jails, where they are often intermingled with incarcerated criminals. Tidwell-Cullen noted the widespread use of prison procedures like solitary confinement, shackling immigrants or limiting access to the outside world. The report also cited civil rights violations like a lack of hot meals or access to medical care.
While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued a set of National Detention Standards intended to ensure immigrants are treated humanely, the report called those guidelines outdated and noted that they are voluntary and lack effectiveness. The report faulted the Obama administration for reneging on its promise to overhaul the system and institute standards that would avert a human rights crisis.
The important thing to note straight off with the detention standards is they're not law so not enforceable, Tidwell-Cullen said. If the detention facilities ignore them there's not really a legal process by which they can be challenged so it doesn't really provide a whole lot of oversight so we see them consistently violated with few to little consequences.
Immigrants detained in the network of 26 facilities that encompass the Chicago region often had little access to legal counsel or social service providers, the report found. Because immigrant detainees are not entitled to state-appointed counsel they must either pay for a lawyer or rely on a sparse population of pro bono attorneys to navigate the complexity of deportation proceedings. But many immigrants find themselves in far-flung facilities that leave them isolated and unable to mount a defense when they are eligible to remain in the country.
An Explosion In Immigration Detainees
These concerns are not new. A 2009 report traced the explosive growth in the number of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, from 6,200 in a day 1992 to some 31,000 a day in 2009, as a result of heightened enforcement and policies that mandated detention. The growth in the detainee population has led Immigration and Customs Enforcement to increasingly enlist county and state jails or to contract with private for-profit prisons, and the 2009 report said that the swiftly expanding system was woefully unregulated.
Over 320,000 immigrants locked up each year not only face tremendous obstacles to challenging wrongful detention or winning their immigration cases, but the conditions in which these civil detainees are held often are as bad as or worse than those faced by imprisoned criminals, the report's authors wrote.
The more recent report also criticized the planned construction of a detention facility in Crete, Illinois by Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that has a record of egregious human rights violations, including the death of an immigrant detainee and incidents of sexual abuse, even as its profits have grown in past years. Rather than rely on more costly jails or private contractors, the reports authors urged the use of alternative to detention programs for immigrants who do not pose a flight risk.
Civil detention does not mean simply better-looking facilities, the authors wrote. It requires referring low-risk individuals into alternatives to detention programs and using detention as a last resort.