Progressive lawmakers press DHS chief on immigration detention

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Progressives in the House and Senate are calling on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to implement immigration detention reforms while Congress works toward passing broader legislation.

In a letter led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and co-signed by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.), lawmakers pressed Mayorkas to make administrative changes pending broader legislative action on comprehensive immigration reform.

“While this system has needed reform for quite some time, the past four years have taught us how this cruel detention system can be pushed to its limits to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering on those who are in its custody,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter highlighted the growing number of immigration detainees, calling them an example of “our flawed immigration laws and policies.”

Citing figures from the Congressional Research Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), lawmakers said the average daily number of immigration detainees jumped from 6,785 in 1994 to more than 50,000 in 2019.

“And to make matters worse, our immigration detention system has a horrible track record of mistreating those who are in it,” they added.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the letter.

The letter comes as the Biden administration is overseeing a radical shift in immigration detention patterns. While its asylum policies for unaccompanied minors have resulted in bottlenecks at border intake facilities, a decreased emphasis on interior enforcement has essentially emptied ICE detention centers.

According to ICE, around 15,000 people are currently in immigration detention, from a peak of more than 50,000 before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Thursday’s letter accompanied Booker’s reintroduction of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. Smith and Jayapal introduced the House version last month.

“During the Trump Administration, we saw vividly how our immigration detention system can dehumanize and harm those seeking asylum in the United States,” Booker said in a statement Thursday. “Our bill will protect the civil rights of immigrant detainees so that they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The legislation would codify human rights standards for immigration detention by initially establishing protections similar to those set by the American Bar Association’s Civil Immigration Detention Standards. It also would require oversight of immigration detention facilities and impose penalties for facilities found to be noncompliant, including the closure of both privately-owned and public facilities.

But with a 50-50 Senate and competing legislative priorities, the bill is unlikely to see legislative action anytime soon.

Booker, Jayapal and Smith listed a series of steps in their letter that they say Mayorkas can take on his own.

In addition to adopting the American Bar Association’s standards, they asked Mayorkas to phase out the use of private facilities and county jails for immigration detention.

Advocates have long held the use of jails for immigration detention — a civil detention, not a criminal one — is a violation of human rights.

The use of private detention centers has also been a focus of controversy, both regarding immigration and criminal detainees, as opponents have decried the financial incentives at play when trying to balance inmate well-being with corporate profits.

Booker’s letter also lists a series of procedural and tactical reforms the Department of Homeland Security could take without legislation, including a change from a presumption of continued detention to a presumption of release and a ban on solitary confinement.

“While we work to pass our legislation, these are actions you can take to ensure that our
immigration system treats those who are in it with compassion and dignity,” the lawmakers wrote.

Updated at 4:23 p.m.

Tags Adam Smith Alejandro Mayorkas Cory Booker Immigration immigration detention centers Immigration reform Pramila Jayapal

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