One year after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a series of changes to the immigration detention system, more immigrants are in custody and conditions of their detention have not improved, according to three Minnesota groups involved in immigration issues.
Minnesota’s Advocates for Human Rights, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and Interfaith Coalition on Immigration called attention to the national Year One Report Card: Human Rights & the Obama Administration’s Immigration Detention Reforms. The national coalition, which includes the Detention Watch Network, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) quoted ICE Director Morton’s 2009 pledge of reform in immigration detention, which it said included “expanding ICE’s alternatives to detention programs; creating a civil detention model; providing sound medical care to immigrants detained in ICE custody; introducing robust oversight mechanisms to promote transparency and accountability within the agency; and adopting fiscally prudent detention practices.”
Acknowledging the strong commitment of top officials and progress in some areas, the coalition nevertheless said that significant human rights violations continue, that there has been no meaningful improvement in oversight practices, that the size of the detention population makes reform difficult and that ICE has not demonstrated a commitment to effective alternatives to detention programs.
The most serious complaints-including physical and sexual abuse of detainees-focus on “private” jails run by two large, for-profit corporations. These private jails are located primarily in the Southwest. In Minnesota, concerns focus more on the number of detainees and the punitive conditions of detention.
Immigration detentions raise budget as well as human rights issues, according to Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights:
Detention has become a cornerstone of the United States’ immigration enforcement strategy. Driven by mandatory detention laws and the politics of the immigration debate, the immigration detention system has rapidly grown into a behemoth, with over 32,000 beds and as many as 350 different facilities operated by ICE alone (up from around 10,000 beds in the early 1990s). … The choice to rely on detention is costly to the taxpayer: the Obama administration spent $1.77 billion on custody operations in FY2010. It’s also costly to our American values of due process, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, family unity, and humane conditions of detention.
ICE’s response to the report
While writing this article, I contacted Minnesota ICE officials by telephone and email, and posed some very specific questions:
1) How many civil immigration detainees are held in Minnesota on an average day? Of these, how many are held in Ramsey County and how many in the other four counties with jail agreements (Sherburne, Carver, Nobles and Freeman)?
Here is ICE’s “response,” which addressed none of the questions:
Over the past year, ICE has made significant progress in reforming its immigration detention system, prioritizing health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility.
On any given day, according to Rev. John Gutterman, field director for Interfaith Coalition on Immigration (ICOM), a program of Church World Service, about 60 civil immigrant detainees are held at the Ramsey County detention center under a county contract with ICE. Civil detainees are those who are held for ICE, but have not been charged with any crime. Sherburne, Carver, Nobles and Freeborn county jails also have agreements with ICE.
ICOM holds a monthly vigil at 2:30 on the first Sunday of each month, supporting civil immigrant detainees (and their families) at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center, and also provides other services to the detainees. Attendance at the vigils has ranged from 15 to 100 people, said Gutterman.
In Minnesota, advocates point to the inherently punitive nature of detention. In Ramsey County, said Garnett McKenzie, there are no outdoor recreation facilities, and detainees never get outdoors. That may work for “what jail was built for, a three or four day average stay,” she said, but it’s “not okay for our clients who are there for a year … going through a process that doesn’t have any right to a speedy trial.” Because of the slowness of the immigration process, detainees are held for longer periods of time. Garnett McKenzie expressed particular concern about asylum applicants, who may have been jailed or tortured in their home countries, and are now held pending adjudication of their claim for asylum.
“For people not in mandatory detention,” said McKenzie, “they should consider alternatives to detention, and they have been very slow in rolling out programs and looking at community-based alternative programs.”
Minnesota was the first state to try one alternative, the Intensive Supervised Appearance Program (ISAP). Begun several years ago, ISAP is now operating in about ten states. Detainees on this program are monitored electronically and with face-to-face contact from the company that runs the program, rather than being jailed. This minimizes family separation and disruption of employment.
For many people in immigration proceedings, detention is mandatory. Advocates, including McKenzie, say that laws need to change to give immigration judges more discretion in setting bail and other release conditions.