The incremental steps taken by the US government to reformthe immigration detention system have been outmatched by the furious pace atwhich people have been forced through it in the last two years. With nearly34,400 immigrants detained every night, the need for strong, bindingregulations and comprehensive oversight has never been greater.
But despite thepromises of the Obama administration in 2009 to overhaul the way we detainimmigrants, little has been accomplished two years later. As the New York Timespoints out in a recent editorial,the immigration detention system is still “dangerously broken.”
The immigration system was never intended to be used as asystem to punish immigrants for criminal convictions. While many detainedimmigrants have been convicted of crimes, many more, including detained asylumseekers, have no criminal convictions; others have only been convicted of minoroffenses, such as driving without a license.
And those who have been convictedof crimes are transferred to immigration detention centers after being releasedfrom criminal custody – not for additional punishment, but to ensure that theyattend immigration court hearings and comply with the orders of the ImmigrationJudges. Nevertheless, as the Times points out, approximately half of allimmigration detainees are held in actual jails – the same proportion as in 2009– while many others are held in jail-like facilities.
Given the strong incentives that private correctional corporations and local and state law enforcement agencies haveto preserve the current system and expand the use of detention, it may bewishful thinking to hope for a wholesale shift toward a civil detention model.But DHS does have the power to drastically improve conditions in detentionfacilities, which are often shockingly poor. Indeed, DHS has devoted some ofits reform efforts since 2009 to improving the quality of medical care indetention facilities, and has made strides in areas such as treatmentauthorization, standardizing medical records, and screening detainees formedical and mental health issues.
But there is still a drastic shortage of healthprofessionals working in detention facilities, especially in those located inremote areas or that have small populations of immigration detainees. Andanecdotal evidence suggests that detainees with serious health problems who arenot subject to mandatory detention are often released from custody when theypress their medical concerns, instead of being provided with medical care.
Atthe most basic level, doctors, lawyers, and advocates continue to have difficultyaccessing detainees’ medical records, which are not even transferred when adetainee is moved to a different facility.
Our government has made a commitment to detaining 34,300immigrants every night, and has said that it wants to improve conditions indetention centers. It is time to match these words with actions by creating anon-penal detention system, implementing strong and binding standards, andproviding detainees with adequate legal services and medical care.
Until theadministration fully commits to fixing this dangerously broken system, it willremain a shameful reminder of how far we have fallen in our treatment ofimmigrants and our commitment to human rights.