Thursday, September 06, 2007

Continuing the Conversation on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

From the LIRS Advocacy Update Page:

Comprehensive Reform: Building a More Humane Enforcement System
By Matt Wilch, LIRS Senior Counsel for Policy and Advocacy

Without passage of comprehensive immigration reform, our immigration system—including the immigration detention system—is still broken. In the last year the detention system has grown by 32 percent to now confine over 27,500 people at a time, with an annual capacity to detain over 283,000. Most U.S. citizens do not know that this ever-expanding detention system is broken. Most do not even know that it exists.

In an ongoing effort to shed light on this invisible world, we wrote in a recent column about three reports that shed light on the hardships and injustice of detention and the system’s lack of oversight. A July report from the Government Accountability Office recounts pervasive problems with telephone access in detention centers. Most detainees are held in remote locations where the phone is their lifeline to attorneys and family. Each of the reports offered constructive recommendations to transform the system, including expanded use of alternatives to detention, increased access to legal counsel and improved oversight of conditions.

Further recent evidence of the system’s brokenness includes the following:

First, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) barred a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights from two of the three U.S. detention facilities he was scheduled to visit, including the Hutto Detention Center [note]. The rapporteur’s job is to advise U.N. member states, including the United States, how to comply with their human rights obligations. Just as other countries invite anger and mistrust when they bar legitimate international inspections, DHS invites suspicion that they have something to hide or that they do not consider themselves accountable to international norms. Worst of all, DHS missed the opportunity to have an independent evaluation that could help to build a more humane system.

Second, a June 26 New York Times article reported 62 deaths in immigration detention since 2004. This was 42 more than were known by advocates before DHS released the figures to the media. Advocates have requested detailed information on the deaths. We hope DHS will be open about the deaths and learn valuable lessons from them. For example, if those who are particularly vulnerable—such as elderly, sick or traumatized people—suffer declining health and higher mortality rates when detained, they should be released to family or friends or to safer alternative settings.

During the Senate action on comprehensive immigration reform, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced an amendment to begin fixing our broken detention system. The amendment received unanimous support, but did not become law since Congress did not pass the bill it amended. The Lieberman amendment echoed the three recommendations of the recent reports on detention: expand alternatives, access to legal counsel and oversight on conditions. We call on both Congress and DHS to act on these recommendations, They should take steps toward comprehensive reform, starting with a major overhaul of the U.S. detention system.

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