Friday, October 16, 2009

Rights and Dignity Denied: One Woman’s Story

Stories from Detention - Week 1

"Our nation's soul is at risk. Families are being torn apart. Human rights are being denied. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed now. We recognize an urgent duty and challenge to stand in solidarity with immigrants, refugees, and trafficked persons seeking fullness of life, and to act as a voice for those whose needs get lost in the political debate."
~ Sister Eileen Campbell

The use of detention as a tool of enforcement has skyrocketed in recent years. In 1996, immigration authorities had the capacity to detain less than 10,000 people on a daily basis. Today that number has tripled - more than 30,000 immigrants are detained each day. More than 440,000 people will be detained by immigration authorities this year.

Immigrants in the detention system spend anywhere from a few days to months or even years in confinement, with little access to family or lawyers on the outside. They are caught in a system that has weak guidelines and little oversight.

More than 104 individuals have died while in immigration custody since 2004, including 11 previously unreported deaths that were revealed in August 2009. Detainees being held on immigration charges are routinely denied adequate medical care, including access to medications treating pre-existing conditions.

Those in detention include immigrants who have never committed a crime, survivors of torture, asylum-seekers searching for protection from persecution, and the parents of U.S. citizen children. None of these populations receive the support and protections they need.

Moreover, until recently, families - including young children - were held in the T. Don Hutto detention facility, a former medium-security prison, in Texas. Families are still detained in the less restrictive Berks facility.

Two agencies within the Department of Homeland Security are in charge of enforcing immigration laws. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is responsible for enforcement within the United States, while Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for enforcement on the borders. People whose legal status is in question are detained in a mix of facilities run by ICE, privately contracted facilities, and county jails.

One of the people directly affected by the detention system is Juana Villegas, a Mexican woman who was stopped for careless driving and then detained in substandard conditions while nine months pregnant. Take a look at this video, in which she describes her experiences while in detention:

Juana Villegas's experiences raise questions about what place a detention system like this has in a society committed to equality, justice, and rights. Her story, which took a lot of courage to tell, sheds light on how the immigration detention system disregards the humanity of too many detainees.

While the government has the right to control its borders, it also has obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all people in its territory. This does not just apply to citizens - it includes everyone, no matter their immigration status. The United States has signed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3)
  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile (Article 9)
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state (Article 13.1)
The public debate on immigration, particularly in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, has created the impression that immigration is an issue of national security. From this debate, hate rhetoric has emerged which contributes to the widely-held impression that immigrants do not deserve any rights. This is not true. Every immigrant, whether undocumented or not, deserves to be treated with dignity and to enjoy the rights listed above.

Today, the U.S. immigration detention system violates these rights, which are protected by international law. When mandatory detention is enforced, these rights are violated. When immigrants are denied a fair day in court, these rights are violated. When ICE does not ensure that detention facilities have appropriate living conditions, these rights are violated. And when people who are particularly vulnerable to trauma and abuse are not protected, these rights are violated. The subsequent posts in this blog series will address each of these issues in turn.

When both legal and undocumented immigrants are held in detention centers for months or even years, their confinement erodes the United States' commitment to upholding justice for all. When people like Juana Villegas are treated inhumanely in the U.S. detention system, their experiences tarnish the United States' reputation as a protector and defender of human and civil rights.

In order to restore justice and respect for the rights of all, Congress and the Obama administration must take bold steps to reform the U.S. immigration detention system. The Department of Homeland Security must make good on its promise to overhaul its detention facilities. The current legislation on humane detention reform must be included in upcoming bills on broader immigration reforms. These steps would ensure that this country's immigration system works for everyone and still respects the basic rights and dignity of all immigrants.

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