U.S. Immigration Detention: An Inhumane System Violating Human Rights

24-1-03_ho.pngBy Christine G.T. Ho
Fielding Graduate University

The U.S. immigration detention system consists of approximately 250 privately-run prisons sprawled across the country in remote locations to warehouse unauthorized immigrants. Immigrant detention has tripled over the past decade. This spectacular growth has benefited mainly the privatized U.S. prison industry. In 2011, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, Inc., the two largest contractors for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), reported annual revenues of $1.73 billion and $1.6 billion respectively (National Immigration Forum 2012). During President Obama’s first term, 1.4 million immigrants have been deported, which is more than were deported during the eight years of the Bush Administration.

Few are aware that the detention system violates international human rights laws which guarantee immigrants the right to a custody assessment, a detention review, and options for release by an immigration judge, except those detained at the border. The system also denies immigrants due process, including access to legal counsel, legal information, interpretation services and judicial review, as well as the ability to challenge detention and deportation decisions. Statistics show that 84% of immigrants in detention and 58% in deportation proceedings have no legal representation.

Other human rights violations include arbitrary detention and “mandatory detention” (compulsory imprisonment without custody assessment or detention review for minor crimes committed long ago). Mandatory detention has effectively nullified any challenge (Zavella 2011) by eliminating the right of appeal and judicial review of any wrongful, arbitrary or discretionary decision for both “legal” and “illegal” immigrants and by protecting immigration authorities from law suits and judicial review of mistakes and biases. Unprecedented summary removal at the border has made border officials judge, jury and executioner, while immigration authorities are allowed to imprison any noncitizen, without bond, a process protected from judicial review.

According to human rights law, detainees must be provided with access to medical care. In violation of the law, detainees have died because medical staff and guards have failed to respond to medical emergencies. ICE itself has recorded 107 in-detention deaths since October 2003. Also to be challenged is the use of shackling, attack dogs, solitary confinement, as well as lethal force and Tasers. At least four fatal shootings and another death involving Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have been reported in the media since June 2010 (Amnesty International 2012). Appalling conditions have inspired a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. Ninth Circuit in November 2012, demanding bond hearings for detainees held for more than 6 months.

Equally cruel is housing detainees thousands of miles away from families, lawyers and immigration courts. The New York Times has reported that many detainees with legal grounds to contest deportation are routinely transferred to more remote jails without notice. Even worse, tens of thousands of detainees have been transferred from major cities to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, under the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is notorious for rulings against immigrants (Bernstein 2009).

A culture of fear fuels public support for the deportation of approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants, as well as the militarization of borders and an end to immigration. The result is skyrocketing rates of detention and huge profits for the privatized prison industry. More humane detention guidelines exist but are not enforced. Applied anthropologists could improve the situation by holding ICE accountable for its inhumane practices. In the final analysis, immigrant detention will persist as long as national borders endure, but detention need not be inhumane.

References Cited:
Amnesty International. 2012. In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest. http–www.amnesty.org-en-library-asset-AMR51-018-2012-en-4905b8cd-8d5b-41b9-a301-3121fca2e1cd-amr510182012en.pdf.

Bernstein, Nina. 2009. “Immigration Detention System Lapses Detailed.” New York Times. December 3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/03/us/03immig.html?emc=eta1

National Immigration Forum. 2012. “The Math of Immigration Detention.” August. Washington, DC.

Zavella, Patricia. 2011. I’m Neither Here nor There: Mexicans’ Quotidien Struggles with Migration and Poverty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Author Note: Christine G. T. Ho, Ph.D. is an anthropologist and professor in the School of Human and Organization Development at Fielding Graduate University. Her vision of more humane migration policies is contained in her recent book (with James Loucky), Humane Migration: Establishing Legitimacy and Rights for Displaced People. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2012.