Holiday on ICE: Time for Congress to Stop Joking about Immigration Detention

On Wednesday, March 28, the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement will hold a hearing on the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), a set of rules intended to govern conditions in immigration detention facilities run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These standards have been in the works for several years, and while they are by no means perfect, their publication last month marks an important step away from the use of prison-based detention for immigrants.

But rather than holding a substantive hearing on the improvements and imperfections in PBNDS, the Immigration Subcommittee has chosen to treat them as a joke.

Echoing the ill-informed and juvenile comments by Lamar Smith, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who labeled the standards “hospitality guidelines for illegal immigrants,” the hearing is entitled “Holiday on ICE.

Like past detention hearings, this one promises to be yet another opportunity for the Subcommittee’s Republican members to demonstrate their ignorance of immigration law and attack the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies. Indeed, two of the majority witnesses – Chris Crane of the National ICE Council and Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies – have provided reliably pro-detention and anti-reform testimony in every detention-related hearing held during this Congress.

But instead of replaying this broken record, the Subcommittee would do well to ask any of the 1.2 million people who have passed through the immigration detention system over the past three years – many of whom are not illegal immigrants – how they enjoyed their “holiday” in immigration detention.

Despite the administration’s stated commitment to embracing civil detention for immigrants, the majority of the country’s 250 immigration detention facilities are either jails or jail-like facilities. Even ICE’s new Karnes County Civil Detention Facility, which will open soon as a model for civil immigration detention, is largely based on a prison model.

While the asylum seekers who will ultimately be detained there may be grateful that they can move around freely and make cheap phone calls, nobody who has visited Karnes (or any other detention facility, for that matter) would mistake it for a hotel.

Our country’s immigration system is broken, and Congress has shirked its duty to fix it. Instead of enacting reforms that would decrease the use of immigration detention (which costs over $2 billion each year [pdf]), lawmakers vilify the Obama administration’s meek attempts to improve detention conditions, while accepting contributions from the private prison corporations that receive government contracts to run detention facilities.

Hearings like this should be a chance for our Representatives to learn more about immigration detention and solicit ideas about how to move away from this expensive and destructive system. Instead, House Republicans turn it into a punch line. It’s time for them to realize that nobody is laughing.

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