Tuesday, September 29, 2009

400,000 Reasons to Care About Detention Reform

From Thursday through Saturday last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Detention Watch Network, a coalition representing more than 150 organizations and individuals working to reform the U.S. immigration detention system. This conference was eye-opening, to say the least. Through workshops, presentations, and lobby visits, we discussed how to best address the issue of detention. As it stands today, the conditions in detention facilities around the country violate basic civil and human rights.

Watch this video to see participants in the conference preparing to lobby their members of Congress on detention issues:

I had the opportunity to speak with a number of former detainees and their families, all of whom had become advocates for detention reform because of their experiences. One former detainee, who was held for five months before receiving asylum, spoke of his inability to communicate with the outside. He had extreme difficulties contacting his family and finding a lawyer to represent him because he arrived in the detention facility with no American money - and the $5 calling cards sold in the facility only gave him 4 minutes of talk time.

Another former detainee talked about how the guards would put him and other detainees into a room together just to watch them fight - he said it felt like being in a lion's den.

The mother of a former detainee described how her son had been taken away by ICE while he was working as a teacher's aide in a kindergarten classroom. In front of the students, an armed ICE unit shackled her son's hands and legs, put him in an unventilated van, and brought him to a detention facility with no windows. He spent the next two years there.

An advocate working with current detainees told the story of the experiences of some of his clients: During Ramadan, these detainees asked for a cup of hot water at the end of the day, so that they could break their fast. The guards said no, and when the detainees voiced their frustration one of the guards threatened to put them in solitary confinement.

Detainees are denied the most basic human and civil rights while in detention - access to adequate health care, food, and water. They are often held in facilities that have no windows, and some go months at a time without seeing sunlight. There are no enforceable standards to ensure that they are protected from abuse. As it stands today, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has treated detention as the default -- the consequence of this approach to immigration enforcement is that over 400,000 people will be held in detention facilities this year.

Four hundred thousand lives. Is this how the United States wants to welcome those seeking refuge?

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