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Over the past two decades, the U.S. immigrant detention system has fractured, exposing people to unjustified detainment and frequent violations of their civil and human rights.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently holds more than 30,000 immigrant detainees—nearly five times the number held in 1992. According to ‘A Broken System,’ a new report by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and the ACLU of Southern California, immigration detention facilities routinely violate detainees’ basic rights, including the right to adequate access to mail and telephone, sanitary living conditions, and legal and personal visitation.

In several facilities, detainees’ right to private phone calls was violated. In others, detainees were not allowed to make special access calls to courts, consulates, or free legal service providers as required by federal standards, a violation that seriously undermines their ability to build an adequate legal defense.

The lack of information on legal aid options and restrictions on legal communication are especially disturbing given that ICE essentially functions under the premise of ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ meaning people in detention are assumed to be in the United States illegally until they prove otherwise. For instance, Hector Veloz, an American citizen and son of a Vietnam War veteran, spent over a year in ICE detention before finally gaining access to legal counsel that resulted in his release. In another case, a detainee was held for over five years before a judge mandated that he be given a hearing to determine whether detention was justified.

To prevent wrongful detention and protect detainees’ civil and human rights, the report recommends that federal standards for facility conduct be uniform, codified into law, and enforced by an independent auditor. The report also urges Congress to establish a pilot program to provide legal counsel to detainees, re-examine the protocol for seizing detainees, and consider promoting alternatives to detainment.

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