Immigration Detention is No "Holiday"

Why do rules aimed at preventing sexual assault, providing care for mental illnesses and infectious diseases, and ensuring that pregnant women aren’t shackled while giving birth make immigration detention facilities less safe?

This question was left largely unanswered by yesterday’s “Holiday on ICE” hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, ostensibly held to discuss the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). 

Instead of a meaningful debate about what constitutes humane treatment in the detention setting, the hearing devolved into what Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren characterized as, “The Republican war on immigrants meets the Republican war on women.”

The Subcommittee’s Republican members trotted out the same tired half-truths they’ve been using for years to justify inhumane conditions for immigration detainees while brushing aside the 120-plus immigrants who have died in detention over the past decade.

Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, repeated his assertion that the PBNDS were “hospitality guidelines for illegal immigrants.” In a characteristically ludicrous diatribe, Iowa Congressman Steve King argued that since only 120 detainees have died over the past 10 years, compared with millions of non-detained Americans, it’s statistically safer to be detained than free.

Jessica Vaughn, a witness from the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, said the PBNDS were an attempt to “help illegal aliens game the system” and referred to an unnamed detention facility that offers detainees a “juice bar.”

But, she said, “I’m not here to ask the government to house detainees in tents in the desert.” She doesn’t need to ask – the government already detains immigrants in tents at the Willacy Detention Center in the Texas desert.

Vaughn’s confusion is understandable. Under questioning from California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, she admitted that she has visited only one detention center in her career.

She noted that this detention center provided “well-rounded meals to detainees,” many of whom were on a first-name basis with the officers guarding them. Detainees had freedom of movement, and the whole thing “seemed a little relaxed” to her. When asked what the problem was with a facility where detainees and guards alike feel relaxed and safe, Vaughn couldn’t answer.

Throughout the hearing, Republicans and their witnesses brought up the new Karnes Civil Detention Center, which they said was more like a college than a prison. I visited this facility a few weeks ago, along with representatives from other human rights organizations. While Karnes is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it is still a jail. Like my college, it had internet access and a volleyball court. Unlike my college, heavy steel doors and high walls topped with barbed wire prevented anyone from leaving.

The Subcommittee’s Democratic members, who often fail to adequately rebut the demonstrably false claims of their Republican counterparts, seemed finally to be incensed enough at the mocking tone of the hearing to respond. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s representative in the House, started his statement by saying that the premise of the hearing was “misguided, and frankly appalling.” The assertion that detainees are being pampered, he said, “does not even pass the laugh test.”

Lofgren noted that, “It’s very easy to pick on the most vulnerable people, and I think that’s what’s going on here.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to think of an easier target for reactionary politicians looking to score political points. Immigration detainees, of course, are not allowed to vote.

They are held in facilities that are often built far away from cities, depriving them of access to families, communities, physicians, and lawyers. Detainees don’t have the right to a lawyer at government expense, and the vast majority are unrepresented.

The media gives woefully inadequate coverage to the issue, and reporters covering immigration detention reflexively parrot Republican assertions without bothering to check their accuracy.

The worst part is that most of the problems Republicans complain about were created by Congress.

California Congressman Elton Gallegly, the Subcommittee’s Chairman, noted that we should be trying to reduce the amount of time immigrants spend in detention. True enough – but this won’t happen unless Congress appropriates more money to the Immigration Courts, which are critically under-funded and under-resourced.

And complaints about the $32 million spent on the Karnes facility (which, in fact, was paid for by the GEO Group, the private prison corporation that runs the facility, and not the federal government) ring hollow when Congress enacts laws requiring the government to detain 34,000 immigrants every night.

So how do the new PBNDS make immigration detention facilities less safe than they already are? Yesterday’s hearing failed to answer that question.  But no amount of standards – especially standards that, like the PBNDS, are not legally enforceable – will make up for the fact that our government detains far too many people, unnecessarily, and at great cost to American taxpayers.

The Subcommittee’s Republicans would do well to spend a few days in Karnes, Willacy, or any other detention facility the next time they need a vacation. If they did, they might think twice before holding another “Holiday on ICE” hearing.


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