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by Andrea Black and Paromita Shah

Homeland Dept. Inspectors Find Widespread Abuse of Jailed Immigrants

(PNS) -- Within the last six weeks in immigration detention, three people, including a pregnant woman, died. Hundreds suffered food poisoning in the Northwest Detention Center in Washington, and spoiled food with maggots was served to detainees in Willacy County Detention Center, Texas.

These incidents are not aberrations. They are evidence of systemic deficiencies within the U.S. immigration detention system, in which thousands of detained immigrants are routinely denied necessary medical care, humane treatment and the ability to navigate the legal system with adequate access to such basic things as visitation, legal materials, and functioning telephones.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is one of the largest jailers in the world -- second only to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) – yet it acts like a local lawless sheriff. Despite recurring and persistent problems over the last 15 years, ICE has repeatedly opposed attempts to legally enforce safe, secure and humane treatment of the 283,000 immigrants detained yearly within its custody. Unlike the BOP which implemented regulations in the 1970s in response to alarmingly similar systemic deficiencies, ICE uses detention "standards" which are neither enforceable nor universally applied. As a result, compliance varies greatly among the 400-plus detention centers, local jails and private prisons used by ICE to house detained immigrants. With no independent oversight mechanism available, the onus is on individuals to bring complaints through a frustrating and bureaucratic process which rarely results in improvement.

While ICE maintains that detention standard compliance is an agency priority, experience has taught that the lack of proper enforcement mechanisms seriously undermines its effectiveness. In addition to the recent horrors of the past month, there are regular and recurring stories of detainee mistreatment including the abusive treatment of children within their family detention centers, undercooked food, no access to outdoor recreation, serious overcrowding, and medical care mismanagement which contributed to the injury or deaths of hundreds. With a tripling of detention beds planned in the next few years, the problems are only going to get worse.

Despite mounting calls for information and accountability, ICE leadership hems and haws, gives the runaround to desperate family members and advocates, and outright refuses to provide critical information about its practices and policies–all the while maintaining that it is doing the "right" thing. For example, the mere task of finding someone in detention is notoriously difficult, but ICE refuses to put together a national phone number that will provide the location of a detainee. Also, lawyers cannot, with complete certainty, obtain from ICE the number people who have died in detention. Even ICE's strategic plan for deporting all noncitizens, posted for years on its website, has mysteriously disappeared. This exasperating lack of transparency has had deadly consequences.

Improved and enforceable standards implemented with greater transparency and a strong, independent system of oversight are long overdue. Promulgating enforceable regulations is a critical first step and not only has benefits for immigrants, but for ICE and our government.

Regulations, unlike non-binding standards, would ensure uniformity and consistency in detention conditions, enabling ICE to better monitor and assure quality control in the range of facilities it uses and negotiate more effectively with private prison suppliers who do not perform in accordance with the contract. Regulations would also reduce ICE's exposure to legal liability and adverse publicity. Already, several lawsuits have been filed against ICE, most recently in the San Diego Correctional Facility (run by Corrections Corporation of America) for persistent standards violations.

Finally, ensuring humane treatment for the foreign-born is good foreign policy. ICE's failure to promulgate regulations throughout the country's detention centers contributes to the United States' negative standing in the international community as a country that does not provide due process to the foreign-born and disrespects international human rights covenants. Regulations in immigration detention would bring us closer to international human rights norms and provide the United States with an opportunity to re-shape its image abroad and domestically as a supporter of due process and human rights.

We need enforceable standards that establish clear lines of accountability. By issuing detention regulations that carry the force of law, the government will be better able to ensure humane and uniform treatment of detained immigrants and prevent future violations.

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Albion Monitor   September 7, 2007   (

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