New Immigration Legislation Would Allow for Indefinite Detention

As the US immigration detention web rapidly expands, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) continues to document the existence of numerous problems within the system that harm and sometimes kill detainees. Inability to meet the advanced and chronic health care needs of survivors of persecution, dangerous disregard for ethical obligations, and the overuse of solitary confinement to “treat” behavioral issues are just some of these problems. Incredibly though, despite our unwieldy and inefficient detention regime, some see a need for more. This sentiment has given rise to proposed legislation – H.R. 1932, the “Keep Our Communities Safe Act” – which would subject more people to mandatory detention while their immigration cases are pending and would allow for the indefinite detention of some people who the government is unable to deport.

A well-attended hearing was held on this bill on Tuesday, May 24th by the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. Witnesses offered widely divergent accounts of whom the legislation would affect, and how. Supporters of the bill described immigrants with long rap sheets from countries such as Cuba and Vietnam (with whom the US lacks the diplomatic relationships or agreements necessary to arrange for deportation). Such individuals are currently released after a short period of detention but are subject to safeguards that require them to stay in contact with immigration officials. H.R. 1932 would allow for the continued incarceration of people like this, ostensibly to keep our communities safer.

On the other hand, an ACLU attorney cited sympathetic clients who would be indefinitely detained under H.R. 1932, including an asylum seeker, a decorated Gulf War veteran, and a man who’d fled the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia as a young child. ACLU attorney Arulanantham affirmed that, “most of the immigrants covered by the proposed legislation are anything but dangerous.” In addition, he emphasized the potentially crippling expense of expanding and lengthening detention: at an average of $122 per day, its cost dwarfs that of community supervision, at about $9 a day.

Scientific, constitutional and human rights principles speak in perfect harmony on the subject of the extended and expanded confinement envisioned by H.R. 1932’s creators. Indefinite detention is known to cause psychological trauma with physical repercussions, even in previously healthy individuals. Its effect on survivors of torture and persecution is medically devastating, and re-traumatized detainees are significantly impaired in their ability to defend against deportation. In its attempt to stop a few bad actors, H.R. 1932 broadly overreaches and would result in diminished well-being and capacity for the thousands who would become ensnared in its reach.

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