One Year Of Immigration Detention Reform Is Just The Beginning

Today, October 6, marks the one-year anniversary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) announcement that it would undertake major reforms of the immigration detention system.?The need for reform was made clear by a report (pdf) issued on this date last year by then-director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Detention Policy and Planning, Dr. Dora Schriro.?Among Dr. Schriro’s key findings were that the immigration detention system had grown dramatically over the course of fifteen years to become the largest and most rapidly-expanding system of incarceration in the country.Although most of ICE’s detention facilities were, and are, designed and operated as prisons and jails, the vast majority of immigration detainees were classified as having a low propensity for violence.?As a result, in Dr. Schriro’s estimation, the immigration detention system “impose[s] more restrictions and carr[ies] more costs than are necessary to effectively manage” detainees.?(The New York Times covered this in this article: Report Critical of Scope of Immigration Detention.)Over the past year, Physicians for Human Rights and our colleague organizations have worked with DHS to implement Dr. Schriro’s, and expert health professionals’, recommendations to limit the negative effects of detention on survivors of human rights abuses and other vulnerable immigrants.?Advances have been achieved, yet much more remains to be done.Among the significant accomplishments of the past year is the implementation of a new policy favoring parole for asylum seekers.?Historically, refugees arriving at our borders to request humanitarian protection have been subjected to mandatory detention while their cases were being resolved, which often resulted in incarceration — and declining mental and physical health — lasting a year or more.?Under the new policy, every newly-arriving asylum seeker is afforded an opportunity to request release from detention, which is granted so long as the individual can establish his or her identity, lack of dangerousness, US address upon release, and commitment to appear at his or her Immigration Court hearings.ICE has also made notable progress in ending its relationship with some of its worst-performing detention facilities, and reducing the number of centers nationwide at which immigration detainees are held.?For example, the Varick Street Detention Facility in New York was the object of numerous complaints, including more than fifty grievances (pdf) filed within just one year alleging neglect of medical needs. Detainees at the facility endured inconsistent access to legal assistance, uncomfortably low temperatures, inadequate food, and denial of any outdoor recreation, all in violation of standards that the facility agreed to in its contract with ICE, with complaints dating back to at least the early 1990s. Finally, ICE ended use of the facility for long-term detention at the end of February 2010. In the past year, the number of locations in use by the immigration detention system has declined by more than one hundred, to a current total of about 250.In spite of this past year’s achievements, too many asylum seekers, survivors of violence, immigrants with mental disabilities, and other particularly vulnerable people remain in what is still a massive detention system, oriented towards penal control of its subjects.?Many thousands more have won release from detention only to be referred into restrictive alternatives to detention programs that rely on ankle bracelets, home visits, and other stigmatizing methods that treat immigrants like criminals on community monitoring.On this anniversary of the advent of detention reform, PHR renews its call for changes that are desperately needed to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable newcomers to our country:

  • Reduce the unjustified use of detention, which is unavoidably damaging to the mental and physical health of survivors of human rights abuses. Only those immigrants who pose a danger to the community or are likely to abscond from Immigration Court proceedings need be detained — a small fraction of the more than 400,000 individuals who are currently detained on an annual basis. Asylum seekers, torture survivors, immigrants with serious illnesses and medical conditions, pregnant and nursing women, and children should rarely, if ever, be incarcerated in the immigration detention system.
  • Design and implement a case-management-based alternative to the detention program that employs education about immigration law and connection to community supports in lieu of constant electronic monitoring and strict control over movements.
  • Demonstrate that the US takes its international human rights obligations seriously by ensuring that immigrants who remain in detention are treated with basic dignity and humanity. Harsh penal practices including solitary confinement, shackling, tasering, and strip searches should be used only to mitigate an immediate risk of harm to detainees or others.?Medical screening and classification must be done by licensed health professionals rather than the corps of enforcement officers and detention center guards who currently perform many intake examinations.?All medically-necessary care must be provided in detention, and not subject to the approval — as certain medical orders currently are — of a central reviewing authority composed of officials who never examine or treat detainees.

With the vocal support of health professionals, much more will be accomplished in the coming years, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants will ultimately live healthier, happier, and safer lives.

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