Civil rights leaders and immigrant advocacy groups say they welcome President Barack Obama’s new plan to institute badly needed reforms within the country’s broken immigration detention system.
Current detention policies continue to routinely violate the basic fundamental rights of thousands detained throughout 350 local jails, state prisons and contract facilities throughout the country, they charge. The system, they add, is absolutely flawed with no direct federal oversight.
Many argue the present detention system is a direct result of the many failed policies implemented by the Bush administration’s hard stance on immigration. And the results, they say, have been ugly.
In many instances detainees have been locked up and forgotten, denied access to lawyers or their families. Many continue to languish and lack adequate health care.
For example, in a privately run detention center in rural Basile, La., detained immigrants have been waging the latest of several hunger strikes to get their grievances resolved. They have been pleading for access to medicine, lawyers, their families and basic information about their cases. Its been reported that rats, spiders, flies and filth are rampant there.
The number of detainees has grown in recent years and the federal government holds more than 32,000 each day, and 400,000 annually. Since 2003, 90 deaths have been reported.
President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have said detention policies are a top priority.
The new plan, announced by the Obama administration August 6, will over the next three to five years redesign and rebuild a system that houses detained immigrants in fewer locations, closer to major cities with access to courts, attorneys and medical care, under conditions that consistently meet federal detention standards.
John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, told reporters 23 federal managers would be assigned to each of the department’s largest detention centers throughout the country. Private contractors have been used since 2007, when they were hired to ensure impartial inspections, one of the problems, many charge.
Dora Schriro, former state corrections official in Arizona, will be the head of the new Office of Detention Policy and Planning. The office will collaborate with two advisory boards including immigrant advocates to closely monitor detention policies and health care.
Karen Tumlin is an attorney with National Immigration Law Center and co-author of a recent report, “A Broken System: Confidential Reports Reveal Failures in U.S. Detention Centers.” The report found substantial and pervasive violations that were ignored for years due to the government’s own minimal monitoring requirements.
Tumlin told the World the Obama administration’s reforms are a step forward and a good sign that the federal government is paying attention to a “dark spot” regarding immigration detention centers.
“Though the detainees are accused of civil immigration charges, there is nothing civil about our detention centers,” said Tumlin. “These centers, where people are detained for months and often years at a time, often fail to provide people with their fundamental rights: access to loved ones, the basic materials needed to research and prepare their cases, or even a simple explanation of their rights while in the immigrant detention system.”
Civil detainees are not a threat to society and they should be released and have a fair chance to fight their cases in court, said Tumlin. “Across the board they don’t have a fair shot at justice.”
Vanita Gupta, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer said she too welcomes Obama’s new plan. However, the new measures still fall a little short and critical holes remain, she said over the phone.
Without independently enforceable standards, a reduction in beds, or basic due process before people are locked up, it’s hard to see how the government’s new policies are anything more than reorganization or renaming of what was in place before, said Gupta.
Overall, we’re locking up too many people and a more humane system of treatment needs to be provided, said Gupta.
Meanwhile several bills were filed last week by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that aim to revamp the immigration detention system. The measures call for setting minimum detention standards and for Homeland Security to enforce laws on treatment of detainees.
Clarissa Martinez with the National Council of La Raza said her group is encouraged that the Obama administration is looking closely at the immigration detention crisis.
“This is a system that is not working especially when detainees are left without judicial access, health care or proper attention,” Martinez told the World. “We need policies that are responsible and practices that do not violate our constitutional rights or trample on the very laws that we hold dear,” she said.
Martinez said she understands that the Obama administration has a lot on its plate regarding the economy, health care reform and other pressing matters. Yet, at the same time, the push for immigration reform is an absolute necessity, she said.
“There are many challenges facing us right now, but it’s absolutely clear that the voters want real changes including comprehensive immigration reform in this country,” she said.