Congress should get serious about immigration detention facilities

As a lawyer, I know immigration detainees. I have observed legal orientations for individuals seeking asylum or facing removal, and I have inspected some of the nation’s 250 different immigration detention facilities to assess whether conditions meet the threshold of basic human rights standards. For years, it has been clear that most do not.
 

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In 2009, Human Rights First issued a report documenting the chronic problems in the immigration detention system -- concerns that were also echoed in reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes and others. The reports noted the pervasive use of shackles and overuse of strip-searches and solitary confinement. They documented widespread medical neglect, unreported deaths and suicides and forced sedation of detainees by immigration officers. Reviews also revealed widespread challenges including access to legal counsel and telephones, as well as issues with the open practice of religion. Immigration detention practices were significantly out of step with the nation’s fundamental values and long-standing vision of liberty.
 
In August 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a commitment to change that. The announcement came on the heels of an investigation led by a national corrections expert, Dora Schriro, selected by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to review the immigration detention system. That review concluded that jails and jail-like facilities are inappropriate and unnecessarily costly to hold asylum seekers and other civil immigration detainees.
 
ICE has since developed plans to offer conditions less jail-like than those in the majority of existing ICE facilities. A few weeks ago, it opened its first model “civil” facility in Karnes County, TX. Though the site is still surrounded by barbed wire fences, inside things have changed. Conditions at this facility provide for some increased outdoor access, greater mobility between areas within the closed facility and its grounds and contact visitation. Detainees can also wear “non-institutional” clothing. These are not radical reforms, but they are significant and they are changes that will ultimately make the site safer for detainees and those who work there. In interviews with corrections professionals, Human Rights First has found that “normalized” conditions are actually touted as “best practices” in the penal corrections system because they improve the safety and security of the facility. Multiple studies on the impact of prison design and operations on safety have drawn the same conclusions. Surely, these best practices could be applied to civil immigration detention centers.
 
The Karnes County facility is a step in the right direction for ICE. Despite this progress, however, there are hundreds of other immigration detention facilities around the country that fall far short of ICE's reform commitment. Those facilities cost taxpayers $2 billion annually, about $122 per day for each immigration detainee. These men and women are not spending their days on “holiday” at a “resort.” If that’s what Rep. Smith and his colleagues think, perhaps they should book their next vacation at one of the following “resorts” that I’ve visited:
 
El Centro Service Processing Center - To get to my last “holiday” at this 512-bed immigration detention facility in El Centro, California, I drove two hours into the summer desert from San Diego. To enter, I left my ID and cell phone at the "reception" desk, ran my purse through an x-ray and passed through security. The “hallways” were lined with fencing and concertina coiling and the “guest rooms” were “pods” that housed 64 beds each. Detainee “activities” at El Centro include staying in their dorms all day, with excursions that include going to the cafeteria for meals and 2 hours of recreation at the facility's large dirt yard where detainees play soccer. The day I was there, detainees demonstrated their camaraderie by crouching together against a wall trying to help each other find a small bit of relief from the intense sun and 110 degree heat. The staff there noted repeatedly how it had been a long time since an NGO had visited El Centro -- either to monitor conditions or to provide legal representation.  Another “benefit” of El Centro is the isolation the detainees get from legal services, because who needs access to a lawyer when going through immigration removal proceedings?
 
Pinal County Adult Detention Center in Florence, Arizona and the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall, TX - My “vacations” at these “holiday” spots were also enviable. Detainees don’t have to move anywhere for the entire day or night! They spend 24 hours a day in the same room where they eat, sleep, shower and use the toilet without privacy. Their “outdoor” recreation is in a concrete room off of their pod with light from something that resembles a sky-light. Under ICE detention standards, a sky-light or open space in an otherwise closed, covered, concrete room is sufficient to qualify as “outside.” If you stay long enough, as I saw at Pinal County, you can build up a greenish, graying tone to your skin from lack of sun exposure.
 
At these, and most of ICE’s other immigration detention facilities, detainees are handcuffed and sometimes shackled when transported. Most are required to wear color-coded prison jumpsuits, even when they appear in immigration court in front of a judge. Detainees live with constant and extreme anxiety -- often not knowing what will happen next and where they will ultimately spend the rest of their lives. Many are confused about their legal situation or worried about family members, particularly their children. At the El Centro and Pearsall facilities and elsewhere, when family members do visit, even children, their meetings are divided by a Plexiglas barrier and they’re only allowed to speak by phone. This is standard. Less common, yet more offensive, at Pinal County, visitation is conducted via video, even for visitors who arrive in person at the facility. Few facilities allow “contact” – or person-to-person – visitation. Sounds great, right Rep. Smith?
 
In February 2012, ICE released its 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) that, like the 2008 PBNDS, are based on correctional standards. These prescribe conditions that are not appropriate for the majority of detained asylum seekers or other immigration detainees held under ICE’s civil authority. Even so, Chairman Smith calls these standards “hospitality guidelines.” I’m glad he’s not planning my next vacation.
 
At Wednesday’s hearing, members of the House Judiciary Committee should spend less time trying to sensational and belittle what is a difficult problem, and get down to the real business of figuring out how to implement the changes that can make immigration detention facilities safer and more humane. Though there’s room for improvement, ICE has a solid roadmap in place to start that journey. Now is the time for Congress to get serious.
 
Sovcik is advocacy counsel with the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First.