October 7, 2009

Improving U.S. treatment of immigrant detainees

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Every day, about 32,000 illegal immigrant detainees — including women and children — are kept in conditions criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as overcrowded, inhumane and unsafe.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security is reforming its illegal immigrant detention policies for nonviolent detainees awaiting their day in court — such as those who just arrived, seeking asylum from their home countries’ conflicts and persecution. 

In addition to centralizing its scattered, fractured oversight, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is weighing how to house and monitor nonviolent immigrant detainees: converted hotels, nursing homes and electronic ankle bracelets are all on the table. 

It’s not just about social justice, it’s about cost: The Los Angeles Times reports that detention can cost more than $100 per day compared to $14 per day for other, kinder monitoring programs.

ICE will create  a medical classification system to track immigrants’ medical and mental health conditions upon entrance to the system.  ICE is also ramping up its implementation of a searchable online catalogue of detainees for attorneys and family members.

ICE is also reducing its dependence on contractors — some of whom have been accused of abuse and waste — by doubling the number of  onsite federal employees.  The department has been reviewing more than 350 contracts with local jails, state prisons and private facilities. 

In January 2007, the ACLU sued ICE and Corrections Corporation of America, Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, for keeping more than 1,000 detainees “literally living on top of each other” in the San Diego Correctional Facility. 

In their announcement of that lawsuit, the ACLU wrote:

More than 650 detainees live three-to-a-cell, meaning that one of them sleeps on a plastic slab on the floor by the toilet. Additional detainees sleep on bunk beds in the recreation area, driving the population of some housing units to more than 50 percent over design-capacity.

The backlog of immigration cases in the Ninth Circuit is the largest in the country, according to court statistics. While some detainees at the facility are held for relatively short periods, hundreds live in these overcrowded, intolerable conditions for many months or years, as their immigration cases are reviewed on appeal, the ACLU said. More than half of the detainees in ICE custody have never been convicted of a crime and are only in custody to await civil proceedings related to their immigration status.

 

— Kristen Young

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