Another Scathing Report On Immigration Detention Says U.S. Citizens' Right To Due Process Violated

“In the criminal justice system, anyone arrested is assumed innocent, but in the immigration system, they’re put in detention, and then it’s the individual’s burden to prove they shouldn’t be detained,” Sarnata Reynolds told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s why you’ll see long periods of detention, because it’s an incredibly high burden.”

Amnesty International criticizes immigration detention in the U.S. - Photo: Amnesty International/Steven Rubin

Alternatives to detention are significantly cheaper, AI says. (Photo: Amnesty International/Steven Rubin)

Reynolds is one of the authors of yet another report that is highly critical of the detention conditions people –both immigrants and wrongfully-detained American citizens– are subject to when held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The report, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, published Wednesday by Amnesty International, adds to other dismal appraisals published in recent weeks. Anticipating its publication, an ICE special advisor on detention said it would be taken into account, and acknowledged the need to change the detention system.

The Chronicle’s Tyche Hendricks writes about the cases of two American citizens from the Bay Area, one born in Thailand, the other from Afghanistan, who were taken into custody by ICE in 2007.

Though the men told immigration officials of their citizenship, neither had papers to prove it, and both languished in immigration custody in Santa Clara County jail –Nasir for 11 months, Simma for seven– before a lawyer finally secured their release.

“Absent congressional authorization, you cannot use immigration laws to lock up a citizen,” the men’s attorney, Sin Yen Ling, told Hendricks. “And this is not unusual: I have on my docket right now five to seven of these cases. People have legitimate claims to citizenship, and they inform ICE, yet there’s no formal procedure to figure out what to do with these folks.”

Ling called the cases a violation of the men’s constitutional right to due process.

“U.S. citizens and long-time permanent residents have been incorrectly subject to mandatory detention, and have spent months or years behind bars before being able to prove they are not deportable,” says the report’s executive summary.

The report, coming after a series of critical studies of the immigration detention system, says that “in the last decade the number of immigrants in detention has tripled from 10,000 in 1996 to over 30,000 in 2008, and this number is likely to increase even further in 2009.”

Other key findings:

  • Among those detained are “asylum seekers, survivors of torture and human trafficking, lawful permanent residents and the parents of U.S. citizen children.”
  • Alternatives to detention which have been proven effective “are significantly cheaper” than the $95 spent currently per detainee per day, “with some programs costing as little as $12 per day.”
  • “Immigrants can be detained for months or years without any form of meaningful individualized review of whether their detention is necessary.”
  • 84 percent of those detained are unable to obtain proper legal assistance.
  • ICE detention standards are not legally binding for jails which provide immigration detention services. “Oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent, leading to practices in violation of international standards.”
  • Although violations of immigration law are considered administrative, “immigrants are often put in excessive restraints, including handcuffs, belly chains and leg restraints, and are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses.”
  • “Individuals in detention find it very difficult to get timely –and at times any– treatment for their medical needs.”

As we wrote last week, the Obama Administration has yet to announce any concrete changes to the immigration detention system, although it has hinted that it may address the issue soon.

Dora Schriro, Detention and Removal special advisor to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, has acknowledged the need for improvement. A review of detention policies was ordered as soon as Napolitano took office. Immigration advocates expect ICE to issue more strict guidelines for detention centers and maybe consider using alternative methods to detention.

In an op-ed published on USA Today Wednesday, Schriro acknowledged Amnesty’s publication. “I will carefully consider this important report,” she wrote.

Out of concern for the conditions of detainees’ confinement, ICE already has made appreciable gains by adopting detention standards and monitoring compliance with those standards. However, the care and treatment some ICE detainees receive does not yet meet our shared expectation of excellence. We all agree this is reason for concern.

Secretary Napolitano and I share a sense of urgency about this work, and I will present her with my preliminary findings and recommendations for measurable improvement as soon as possible. I have always believed that how we treat those who are in detention for whatever reason reflects who we are and what we believe as a nation; we must transform a detention system that has been a source of outrage into a reflection of our best selves. The opportunity for meaningful reform is ripe. Secretary Napolitano is committed to measurable, sustainable progress. ICE pledges to ensure this happens.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.