Short-Term Immigration Detention: Custody May be Temporary, but the Problems are Enduring

Despite repeated calls for reform, the immigration detention web continues to grow in scale and cost, and the majority of immigrants held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have broken no criminal laws. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency charged with managing the 250 detention facilities throughout the country, has only partially heeded calls from NGOs to provide a more transparency and oversight. Even more troubling, similar short-term facilities are usually unmarked, unlisted and unavailable for inspection by NGOs. Due in part to their clandestine nature, they receive little attention from NGOs or journalists. Despite the limited duration of the detentions in these facilities, (ranging from a few hours to a few days), the human rights violations alleged to occur are just as distressing as those occurring in long-term detention centers.

Detention standards for long-term facilities are publicly available, but DHS has refused to release the guidelines for short-term facilitates. Internal policy memos, which are not legally binding, seem to provide the only guidance for DHS officials. In 2008, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a vague memo indicating that conditions of short-term confinement must ensure safety and security and promote well-being and general good health, but CBP has failed to live up to this policy. In September, No More Deaths released a report chronicling the abuses suffered by individuals held in CBP short-term centers in Arizona. The individuals profiled in the report complained of a lack of water, food, and medical attention; overcrowding; unsanitary conditions; and extreme temperatures.

In 2009, the ACLU of Southern California filed a class action lawsuit challenging the conditions of a short-term ICE detention facility located in downtown Los Angeles. The lawsuit alleged that the “rudimentary necessities of decent human life” were denied to detainees because they had no access to soap, water, or a change of clothes. The lawsuit also highlighted the ICE practice of shuttling detainees to local jails at night and back to the downtown facility in the morning in an attempt to skirt the rules prohibiting long-term detention there. As a result, the facility became overcrowded, leading to “violence, safety hazards, and humiliation.” The parties ultimately reached a settlement in favor of better conditions at the facility. However, as soon as the settlement period expired, stories began to emerge that conditions had reverted back to being inhumane, disgusting, and grossly unsanitary.

DHS must include all short-term facilities in its detention reform efforts that have been underway since October 2009.  Complete transparency about the size, location, and conditions of these facilities must be achieved to safeguard against continued human rights abuses in short-term detention facilities.

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