Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that it needed to overhaul the detention of noncitizens in unnecessary detention and pledged to reform the immigration detention system.
A new report issued October 6th by Human Rights First shows how the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its nearly 400,000 detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country, with an estimated cost of more than $2 billion in 2012.
Those detained include victims of abuse, including torture victims claiming asylum.
The report tells the story of Maria,* an undocumented mother of three daughters, whose partner abused her and reported her to immigration authorities. Immigration officers entered her home, arrested her and handcuffed her in front of her children.
Although Maria had not committed a crime, she was held in a county jail for six weeks. Denied a breast pump and separated from her baby, Maria suffered severe physical pain and emotional distress.
Even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy maintains that nursing mothers should not be detained, Maria was released only after Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) intervened and now she is seeking lawful status.
Half of all asylum seekers and civil immigration detainees are still held in actual jails.
HRF’s report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review,” notes that former prison officials and other corrections experts have found that less penal conditions in detention can actually help improve safety inside a facility, a finding echoed in multiple studies.
The report outlines steps that the administration should take to end its reliance on facilities with conditions that are inappropriate for asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees, and to bring U.S. detention practices into compliance with international human rights standards.
The $2 billion cost is more than 28 times the budget of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day.
The government’s 2009 commitment followed years of findings on the need for change on detention from bipartisan groups including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Council on Foreign Relations task force on immigration policy and the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee – as well as the DHS Special Advisor charged by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with reviewing the immigration detention system.
ICE has current plans to move only 14 percent of the detained population to new facilities with less penal conditions.
Photo credit: Richard Vallejo