Detention Hearing Should Focus on Issues, Not Politics

Washington, DC —Today, as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement holds its hearing entitled “Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards,” Human Rights First is urging members to bring U.S. immigration detention standards back into step with America’s fundamental values and long-standing vision of liberty. Today’s hearing follows the recent release of the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and accusations by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) that the 2011 PBNDS are “hospitality guidelines” or “[go] beyond common sense to accommodate illegal immigrants and [treat] them better than citizens in federal custody,” despite the fact that most of ICE’s proposed changes already exist in the corrections context, including in federal custody. “Contrary to the accusations of the ICE Union that reforms to the condition of immigration detention will undermine officer and detainee safety, it is well-established among corrections experts that a normalized environment – one that replicates as much as possible life on the outside – can help to ensure the safety and security of any detention facility,” Human Rights First noted in its statement. “They represent steps toward reform that are considered ‘best practices’ in managing and designing any system that detains individuals, whether for correctional or immigration purposes. Immigration detention facilities should not be modeled on correctional facilities, but they should certainly not be operated with more restrictions than corrections experts believe correctional facilities should have or than experts believe are necessary for the safe management of the facilities.” The U.S. immigration detention system has more than tripled in the past 15 years. ICE currently detains up to 33,400 people daily in 250 jails and jail-like facilities throughout the country. As the system grew more rapidly than thoughtfully, reports from the government itself – as well as from media, non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights First, and international human rights bodies – have documented chronic problems. These include excessive use of shacking and strip-searches, overuse of solitary confinement, medical neglect, sexual abuse, deaths, challenges in accessing legal counsel and telephones, frequent transfers, noncompliance with existing standards, lack of oversight, and interference with the open practice of religion. Human Rights First notes that an average cost of $122 per person, per day, the U.S. immigration detention system costs taxpayers over $2 billion annually despite the availability of less costly, less restrictive and highly successful alternative to detention programs. In 2009, following a thorough review led by national corrections expert Dr. Dora Schriro, former director of the prison systems in Arizona and Missouri, and current Commissioner of Correction for New York City, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE announced wide-ranging plans for reform of the immigration detention system that would transition to these alternative models. “Chairman Smith has grossly mischaracterized the current state of the immigration detention system and seems to think that the U.S. government should be able to hold immigrants without process and without minimal standards of operation,” said Human Rights First’s Annie Sovcik. “Today’s hearing should focus less on political theater and more on what really needs to happen to fix our nation’s broken immigration detention policies. While ICE has taken some important steps forward, it has a long way to go to fully realize its commitments to transform the detention system. How we best overcome those challenges should be the focus of today’s hearing.” In its testimony for the record, Human Rights First highlighted key findings from its October 2011 report “Jails & Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review,” including:

  • Asylum Seekers and Other Immigrants Are Still Overwhelmingly Held in Jails and -Jail-like Facilities. In 2009, about 50 percent of immigration detainees held in actual jails, and two years later that proportion has not changed. Most of the remaining 50 percent are held in jail-like facilities. U.S. taxpayers will spend more than $2 billion to maintain this system in FY 2012 – more than 28 times ICE’s budget for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day.
  • ICE Continues to Rely on Detention Standards Modeled on Correctional Standards. Despite the commitment by both DHS and ICE to develop new standards to reflect the environment and conditions appropriate for civil immigration detention, immigration detention facilities are still inspected – as they were in 2009 – under standards that are modeled on those used in jails, and that impose more restrictions and costs than are necessary to effectively manage the majority of the immigration detention population.
  • Less Restrictive Conditions Can Help Ensure Safety in Both Corrections Facilities and Immigration Detention Facilities. Most of ICE’s proposed changes actually already exist in the corrections context, and are actually touted as best practices. Corrections experts have confirmed that a normalized environment – one that replicates as much as possible life on the outside – helps to ensure the safety and security of any detention facility. Multiple studies on the impact of prison design and operations on safety draw the same conclusion.

The organization also made the following recommendations:

  • Stop Using Prisons, Jails, and Jail-like Facilities, and When Detention Is Necessary Use Facilities with Conditions Appropriate for Civil Immigration Law Detainees.
    • ICE should end the use of prisons, jails, and jail-like facilities to hold detainees.
    • After an individualized assessment of the need to detain, ICE should use facilities that provide a more appropriate normalized environment. Detainees should be permitted to wear their own clothing, move freely among various areas within a secure facility, access true outdoor recreation for extended periods of time, access programming and email, have some privacy in toilets and showers, and have contact visits with family and friends.
    • ICE should develop and implement new standards not modeled on corrections standards to specify conditions appropriate for civil immigration detention.
  • Prevent Unnecessary Costs and Ensure that Asylum Seekers and Other Immigrants Are Not Detained Unnecessarily.
    • ICE should create an effective nationwide system of Alternatives to Detention for those who cannot be released without additional supervision and Congress should ensure that cost savings are realized in the program’s expansion by reallocating part of the detention and removal budget to an increase in the ATD budget.
    • DOJ and DHS should revise regulatory language and/or Congress should enact legislation to provide arriving asylum seekers and other immigration detainees with the chance to have their custody reviewed in a hearing before an immigration court.
    • Congress should revise laws so that an asylum seeker or other immigrant may be detained only after an assessment of the need for detention in his or her individual case, rather than through automatic or mandatory detention.

For more information on immigration detention, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at 202-370-3323 or [email protected].


Published on March 28, 2012


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