Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Flicker of Change, but No Legal Torch to Light the Way DHS report outlines problems with immigrant detention system, but lacks enforcement mechanisms for proposed solution
The National Immigration Law Center has issued a press release claiming that the 35-page report on immigrant detention conditions released today by the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) (Download 091005_ice_detention_report-final) is a critical first step by the Obama administration in acknowledging the myriad problems with the way the United States treats the nearly 400,000 men and women in its immigrant detention system. The NILC welcomes the report’s finding that the framework for the current system, which is premised on a criminal justice framework, must be rejected. However, although the report recognizes that 89 percent of detainees are nonviolent, it fails to call for any serious attempt to reduce the size of the immigrant detainee population. In addition, although the report calls for the creation of a new set of detention standards geared towards an exclusively civil detainee population, the administration has not indicated that it will make these new standards for detention centers legally enforceable. Both reduction of the detainee population and legally enforceable standards were measures identified by the National Immigration Law Center in its July 2009 report, “A Broken System”, as essential to fixing the nation’s broken detention system. “The government has recognized that it has a massive system with serious problems, and has identified steps to ameliorate the situation,” said Linton Joaquin, the National Immigration Law Center’s general counsel. “However, the steps they propose taking in the short and intermediate term are limited compared to the size of the problem. While the DHS proposal to shift from criminal to civil standards as the basis of its detention system is a step in the right direction, as long as these standards are not enforceable, the rights violations faced by the men and women in these systems will persist.” One of the key DHS report recommendations calls for an online tracking system for detainees. An online system is essential for lawyers and loved ones who currently have no practical way to locate men and women who have been detained. The report also correctly recognizes a mismatch between detention center locations and immigrant populations, which makes access to lawyers and loved ones difficult and causes immigrants to give up what would otherwise be meritorious cases to remain in the U.S. The DHS announcement today identifies several of the steps the agency must make to create a “truly civil system” and correctly notes that our current immigration enforcement programs “identify large volumes of aliens with low level convictions or no convictions” who should not be the focus of immigration enforcement efforts. The detention system can’t be viewed in isolation from how immigration enforcement is conducted.