New Report Documents Mental, Physical, Legal Impact of Increased Detention in California

“The Trump Administration’s massive overuse of detention punishes vulnerable asylum seekers in a failed attempt to deter others from seeking protection,” said Human Rights First’s Robyn Barnard, the primary author for today’s report. “Refugee families are treated like criminals from the moment they arrive at our borders, they are separated from loved ones, put in what are essentially prisons, and left to defend themselves in a complex legal system often without a lawyer. These challenges, combined with poor healthcare and conditions, worsen the trauma of those who came to the United States fleeing torture and trauma.”

Today’s report finds that many detainees are held for months and years even though they qualify for release under U.S. law, regulations, and other relevant criteria. Researchers also found that detention itself is a barrier to legal representation and that many detainees report denials of, or deficiencies in, health care, long waits to see health professionals, and a lack of proper medication. Further, following a December 2017 policy change ending the presumption of release for pregnant women, ICE now detains many pregnant women in California despite the well-documented harmful effects of detention on both pregnant women and fetal development.

Prisons and Punishment includes examples of personal histories of vulnerable people impacted by the use of immigration detention in California. The report further offers recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, Facility Operations, and Congress to end harmful detention policies.

“Legal representation for detained asylum seekers and other immigrants is essential to the due process of our immigration system, yet the majority of individuals in immigration detention centers in California are forced to represent themselves without a lawyer,” said Jenna Gilbert, managing attorney in Human Rights First’s California office. “In a moment when there are unprecedented attacks on asylum seekers and their right to seek protection, increased pro bono and quality representation is a matter of life and death.”


Examples of the vulnerable people impacted by the overuse of immigration detention in California includes:

  • Irene, a 37-year-old woman from Mexico, detained at Otay Mesa detention center suffering from fibroids, vaginal bleeding, and pain waiting months to see a gynecologist.
  • Andres, a 33-year-old hearing-impaired Mexican asylum seeker detained at Adelanto who waited six months for a new hearing aid after his broke.
  • Manoj, a 36-year-old Indian man detained at the Imperial detention center who waited 11 days for his diabetes medication despite informing ICE upon arrival at the detention center of his condition.
  • Rina, an asylum seeker from Russia, who attempted suicide after being detained seven months at the Adelanto detention center.
  • Roxana, a 40-year-old woman seeking asylum from El Salvador who is detained at Otay Mesa detention center hemorrhaged for over two months before receiving emergency care.
  • Jean, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Haiti, who was sexually assaulted at the Adelanto detention center by another detainee.
  • Transgender women who spoke with Human Rights First recounted numerous instances where they experienced verbal abuse and transphobic slurs from both detention facility staff and other detainees.

Today’s report also includes the following recommendations for DHS, ICE, Facility Operations, and Congress:

  • End Unnecessary, Costly, and Inhumane Immigration Detention
  • Support Access to Legal Representation
  • Stop Detention of Vulnerable Populations
  • Address Medical and Mental Health Care Deficiencies and Gaps
  • Strengthen Standards and Oversight

Published on January 15, 2019


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