Federal detention rule change, Minnesota impact for detainees


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced national detention reform efforts early in October, and while advocacy groups are encouraged by a greater effort to prioritize the health and safety of ICE detainees, they want DHS and ICE to do more to ” improve the existing detention system,” according to a press release from the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minnesota based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights.

Minnesota has four immigrant detention facilities, housed in county jails.  Ramsey, Carver, Freeborn, and Sherburne County jails have held 200-300 immigrant detainees on any given day for the past several years, according to DHS spokesperson Tim Counts.  

Michele Garnett McKenzie, from the Advocates for Human Rights, said that a big problem with the current system is that people are being put into prisons that are “not designed for long periods of time,” she said.  County jails are short term facilities.  Garnett McKenzie said that this type of facility is inhumane, especially for people with children, and can be dangerous for people with medical issues and for pregnant women. 

In Minnesota, one person has died while being detained at Ramsey County jail in 2006.  Maria Inamagua Merchan, a department store worker, complained of headaches for over a month, and was treated only with Tylenol.  On April 3, 2006, at approximately 2:30 p.m., she fell from a bunk bed and sustained a lump on the back of the head. According to a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the guard who arrived at the cell “ensured that a nurse would see the detainee during 4:00 p.m. medical rounds.”  Merchan’s condition deteriorated, and four hours later  she was transported to a nearby hospital.   It was later discovered that she had neurocystercosis, an infection of the brain by larvae of the pork tapeworm, which is a condition endemic in parts of Latin America. 

DHS states that “The facility’s clinical protocols, which called for the use of aspirin for headaches, do not account for other possibilities, such as serious, pre-existing parasitic diseases as a cause of the problem.”  It also states that, “We cannot determine with certainty whether this death could have been avoided had the detainee received immediate medical attention for head trauma.” The report did, however, recommend further medical screening for neurocystercosis, which as a disease is growing in parts of Latin America. 

There have also been two miscarriages in detention centers.  One of the women, Cynthia Lamah, was denied medical attention, in spite of cramps and bleeding during her pregnancy, according to Michelle Garnett McKenzie, who spoke about Lamah’s case in 2007.

John Gutterman, a pastor with the United Church of Christ, has been working with the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, trying to bring faith communities together to help bring about immigration reform. 

“The most important thing we do,” he said, “Is we have monthly vigils at Ramsey County Jail,” said   Gutterman, whose group meets the first Sunday of every month.  “It’s almost a secret that [the detainees] are there,” he said.  “We want the country to know what is going on at Ramsey County.”

Gutterman said the problem with Ramsey County is that it is a short-term facility.  “We’re trying to get them to shift over to a civil model, from penal incarceration to much softer approach,” he said.  “These people are not in jail for crimes, but to make sure they show up to appropriate hearings.”  Gutterman said that ICE standards of detainee prisoners are not being observed at Ramsey County Jail.  They don’t provide libraries, for example, and he criticized the medical conditions.  He said that just recently a detainee was charged a co-pay for medical services, despite the fact that according to ICE policy that is not supposed to happen.  “We want Ramsey County jail to be a much safer place for detainees,” he said. 

More detentions, deportations

Nationally and in Minnesota, the number of people detained while going through immigration proceedings increased in 1996, when Bill Clinton signed the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made detention and deportation mandatory for individuals with minor violations such as shoplifting. Previously, immediate deportation was triggered only for offenses that could lead to five years or more in jail.   

According to Detention Watch Network (DWN), mandatory detention means that an immigrant convicted of a crime defined as an “aggravated felony” in the immigration code is subject to mandatory detention without bond and permanent removal from the United States, without regard to whether the person is a flight risk or poses any danger.


“Under these laws, even misdemeanor crimes as minor as shoplifting or crimes where no time was served can be considered ‘aggravated felonies,'” according to DWN’s factsheet.  “These penalties apply to all non-citizens, including long-time lawful permanent residents.  Moreover, the expanded definition applies retroactively, meaning that legal immigrants can be deported for offenses they committed decades ago, before such offenses were even deportable crimes.”


Locally and nationally, the number of people deported each year has steadily increased.   In ICE’s fiscal year 2001 (ending September 30, 2001), there were 116,782 people deported nationwide; in 2009, there were 387,790.  In the five-state region to which MN belongs, there were 2,082 removals in 2001 and 6,317 removals in 2009.   


“There has been a general increase in deportations during the past decade,” Timothy Counts said in an email, “The reasons for this are increased funding and additional positions provided by Congress, and the fact that we’re simply getting better and more efficient at doing our job…” 


ICE reforms announced


A press release from DHS states that the new reforms “will improve accountability and safety in our detention facilities as we continue to engage in smart and effective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws,” according to the release. 


The reforms include centralizing all contracts under ICE headquarters’ supervision, in order to “ensure contractors comply with terms and conditions-especially those related to conditions of confinement,” according to the release.  ICE will also develop an assessment tool to identify detainees qualified for Alternatives to Detention, in which they would be able to await deportation hearings in converted hotels, nursing homes, and other residential facilities, according to the press release.  ICE also promises to improve medical conditions for detainees, and reduce reliance on contractors by doubling the number of federal personnel providing oversight in detention facilities, the release states.


DHS spokesperson Tim Counts said in an email that The Ramsey County facility does comply with ICE standards, and that Medical Services provided by Ramsey County are “compliant with health care standards from the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and the ICE National Detention Standards, which surpass industry standards in their stringency and commitment to detainee health and comfort.”

Counts said that, “though the ICE detainee population has increased by more than 30 percent since 2004, the mortality rate has actually declined.  The number of deaths per 100,000 is dramatically lower for ICE detainees than for U.S. prisons and jails, as well as for the U.S. population as a whole.”  See the ICE fact sheet for more details.

In regard to mandatory detention, Counts said that, “There is apparently a misunderstanding about the number of ICE detainees.  ICE does not ‘lock everyone up.’ As in any court system, the vast majority of those who are in removal (deportation) proceedings are not held in custody.  For example, out of approximately 4,000 people in deportation proceedings in Minnesota, only about 300 are in custody on any given day.  That’s less than eight percent of those in deportation proceedings.  Those in custody are ‘mandatory detainees’ (those we are required by law to detain), have final orders of removal, or have the option to post bond.”


Michelle Garnett McKenzie said that reform measures need to go further, particularly in regard to mandatory detention.  “People not charged with a crime are appearing in shackles, trying to find documents with their hands tied,” she said.  She said that in 1996 two laws were passed that took decisions about whether to detain deportees outside of the judge’s discretion.  “That’s a really sweeping designation,” she said.  “It doesn’t help.” 

Some advocates call for an end to all deportations.  Rev. Loren McGrail from the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration said at a Day of the Dead Vigil in front of Ramsey County jail on November 1: “We want an end to the deportations that make detention centers necessary.” 

At the vigil, the family of Sara Avendano asked the audience to sign their petition in support of Sara, who is facing deportation for the second name.  Though she is not in detention right now, she was detained and deported in 2007.  Her husband and six children, including one child with autism, had to struggle without her.  “My mom is not a criminal, she’s my mother,” said her daughter Jennifer. 


Sara’s other daughter, Joana, said that while her mother was gone, she had to take care of her younger siblings, though she was still in high school. 


New Legislation


Garnett Mackenzie pointed to several pieces of legislation that if passed, would help further reform efforts beyond the current ICE efforts.   The Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act, a bill written by California’s Lucille Roybal-Allard and co-sponsored by Representatives Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, would require live training of all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel who come into contact with unaccompanied alien children. It also calls for a detention advisory committee, a clarification of detainee care and custody, and implementation of alternatives to detention programs. 

Another bill, called the Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act,  would protect citizens from being wrongly deported, and requires, among other things, that suspects in immigration cases be read their rights in their native language.