Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Report Blasts U.S. Immigration Detention Practices as “Disproportionate” and Inappropriately “Punitive”

Washington, DC – A new Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report, “Report on Immigration in the United States: Detention and Due Process,” criticizes the United States government for its often unnecessary reliance on detention and its detention of immigration detainees in “unacceptable” conditions in facilities that “employ disproportionately restrictive penal and punitive measures.”  According to Human Rights First, the report addresses many of the ways in which the U.S. detention system for immigrants and asylum seekers is – despite some recent reform efforts – inconsistent with international human rights standards.   “The Obama Administration should respond to the IACHR report with a redoubled commitment to truly reform the U.S. detention system for immigrants and asylum seekers,” said Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein. “It should work to expand alternatives to detention, detain only those who actually pose a threat and need to be detained, provide court review of detention decisions, and transform the conditions in which these individuals are held.”  Human Rights First has long followed this problem and issued a report in 2009 that documented some of the same problems in the U.S. system for detaining asylum seekers and immigrants.  The Inter-American Commission, in its 155-page report, expressed concern about a wide range of U.S. immigration enforcement and detention policies and practices, including:

  • Over-reliance on detention rather than alternatives to detention – noting that   “alternatives to detention programs would be a more balanced means of serving the State’s legitimate interest in ensuring compliance with immigration laws.”
  • Failure to adequately address human rights concerns relating to detention of asylum seekers – concluding that despite a revised parole policy, “the chief human rights concerns” regarding U.S. detention of “arriving” asylum seekers “have not been adequately addressed,” noting that “new guidelines do not modify ICE’s exclusive jurisdiction to serve as both judge and jailer” and that “[n]othing in the new guidelines changes the fact that there is no way to file an appeal with an immigration judge to challenge the denial of parole.”
  • Lack of a “genuinely civil detention system when detention is necessary – noting visits to facilities where “detained immigrants wear prison uniforms; all the units operate as incarceration facilities; and detainees are handcuffed and shackled whenever they are taken outside the center’s walls, even when they are taken to court.”
  • Lack of due process and legal representation – stressing “impact that detention has on due process, mainly with respect to the right to an attorney.”

Each day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security holds up to 33,400 immigrants in detention under civil, not criminal, authority.  In August of 2009, the Obama Administration committed to a set of major detention reforms – including an important promise to shift the detention system to non-penal conditions.  Although DHS has taken some steps in the right direction, immigration detainees thus far continue to be detained overwhelmingly in prisons and prison-like facilities. “Nineteen months after the Obama Administration announced its plans to revamp the flawed U.S. immigration detention system, the vast majority of immigration detainees continue to be held in jails and jail-like facilities. They are often held in remote locations, far from legal services, forced to wear prison uniforms and held in facilities with limited outdoor access where they visit with their families through plexiglass barriers.” Epstein stated.  “Sadly, the present punitive conditions are much the same as those that prompted the reform initiative in 2009.” In its 2009 report U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, which was cited repeatedly by the Commission, Human Rights First documented the rapid increase in the use of prison-like facilities, the lack of prompt court review of decisions to detain “arriving” asylum seekers, and urged that the system be reformed. The Inter-American Commissions many recommendations include:

  • Individualized detention determinations with court review – including that detention decisions should be subject to judicial review” and that immigrants be permitted to appeal decisions on detention risk assessment to an immigration judge.
  • Implementation of robust Alternatives to Detention programs with case management.
  • Curtail prison-like detention conditions – instead using facilities located near legal representation that provide meaningful privacy, freedom of movement within facility grounds, access to outdoor recreation, contact visitation and allow detainees to wear their own clothing.
  • Legal representation and due process – including the appointment of government-funded counsel, expansion of the Legal Orientation Program and limiting of video-teleconferencing in immigration proceedings.”

For more information about the report’s findings and recommendations, please see Human Rights First’s fact sheet.


Published on March 18, 2011


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