Immigration Detention System Under Fire: News Analysis from Feet in Two Worlds

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Immigrant women at a detention center - Photo: Human Rights Watch

Immigrant women at a detention center . (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

The immigration detention system has been under fire from all sides in the past few weeks. Let us count the ways:

  • All of this came after high-profile detainee deaths in Rhode Island and Virginia called attention to the treatment immigrants receive while they await to be deported.

As with other aspects of immigration policy, the Obama Administration has hinted that it may address the issue of immigrant detention soon, but it has yet to announce any concrete measures on the matter.

Dora Schriro - Photo: Tucson Citizen

Dora Schriro. (Photo: Tucson Citizen)

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano created the post of Special Advisor on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Detention and Removal, and filled it with Dora Schriro. As governor of Arizona Napolitano had hired Schriro as the state’s corrections chief.

According to a critical profile of Schriro the Phoenix New Times alt-weekly ran in 2004,

Her critics call her naive, a criminal coddler who thinks she can fix felons and turn them into productive citizens. Her fans call her a progressive, someone who sees the folly in throw-away-the-key and isn’t afraid to stand up to the old school.

In testimony she gave March 3rd [ download here in .pdf ] before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Schriro acknowledged that “in several recent instances, the medical and custodial care that (deceased) detainees received before expiring appeared to be contrary to (Detention and Removal Operations) policy.”

There have been 90 detainee deaths since Homeland Security and ICE were created in 2003.

The 2009 budget, Schriro added, “provided $2,000,000 to ICE to undertake immediately a review of the medical care provided to people detained by DHS.

This is an important opportunity for ICE to convene stakeholders and subject matter experts to build upon the body of knowledge contained in GAO reports, House and Senate reports, and a recent report from a working group on detainee health care that was formed last year by Secretary Chertoff to improve the scope, the services and the system of health care. I plan to actively participate.

Clearly, many concerns have been expressed within government and by the community for some time about the medical care and treatment that the ICE detainees receive and detainee deaths in custody. In my view, there is reason for concern. There is also real opportunity for measurable, sustainable improvement.

After taking office, Napolitano ordered reviews of many operational aspects of the immigration and border security system. About detention facilities, Napolitano’s order asked for a review of the detention standards used and the facilities’ compliance with them. A final report was due Feb. 20, but no official action on the matter has been announced since then.

This week, Human Rights Watch released a report about the conditions of detention for immigrant women, who “often receive substandard care for pregnancies, breast cancer and even routine gynecological matters,” according to The Miami Herald.

A report by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, in turn, said,

Unfortunately, oversight of ICE detention conditions, including detainee medical care, is sorely lacking.

In such an oversight vacuum, ICE tolerates a culture of cruelty and indifference to human suffering. Detainees routinely report being treated as criminals, being accused of faking illnesses, and having painful symptoms ignored. They also face retaliation for demanding better medical treatment or complaining about the medical abuse of fellow detainees.

We do not know if this happens because they are foreign, imprisoned, have no lawyer to defend them or all of the above. We do know from years of direct experience that cruel and inhumane treatment of sick detainees is a systemic problem.

In response, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez told the Herald that Napolitano will work “to improve the scope, the services and the system of healthcare delivered to ICE detainees.”

”Secretary Napolitano recognizes the importance of ensuring that all ICE detainees receive appropriate medical treatment,” Gonzalez said in a prepared statement.

[The Miami Herald]

In immigration detention, as in other aspects of immigration policy, what the Obama Administration has to offer for now is more questions than answers.

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