Monday, November 30, 2009

In Our Community: Immigration News

Not too much to report this week on immigration, since Thanksgiving has been the first order of business for most. I think I can keep you busy for at least half an hour though. Take a moment to read the news on immigration from Monday, November 23 to Monday, November 30.

If you only read one article this week, it should be the Boston Globe editorial, "Where Conservatives Have It Wrong," which discusses how undocumented immigrants actually embrace the can-do spirit that has characterized the United States since its inception. Jeff Jacoby argues that conservatives should recognize that the broken immigration system itself impedes undocumented immigrants from adhering to the law. In calling for comprehensive immigration reform, he writes, "Those immigrants didn’t come here in order to be lawbreakers; they broke a law in order to come here."

The New York Times also has an editorial on immigration, but this one is on the criminalization of immigrants. The newspaper calls out Secretary Janet Napolitano for providing some misleading information on community enforcement actions in her recent speech at the Center for American Progress. Racial profiling has no place in immigration enforcement, yet ICE's Secure Communities program runs the risk of harming innocent immigrants in the name of fighting crime. A key quote: "Laws must be enforced, but doing it this way hurts the innocent, creating a short line from Hispanic to immigrant to illegal to criminal."

Georgia Detention Watch just held a rally, vigil, and funeral procession on November 20, in memory of Roberto Martinez Medina, a 39-year-old man detained at the Stewart detention facility who died back in March of a treatable heart infection. For more information on deplorable detention conditions and what you can do about it, read our blog series, "Stories from Detention." You can also watch a video of the Georgia events here:

Communities around the country continue to speak out, saying that now is the time for immigration reform, and the Associated Press has noticed unprecedented levels of diversity among immigration advocacy groups. Not only Latino immigrant-based organizations, but Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, the NAACP, Caribbean-Americans, faith groups, LGBT advocacy groups, and others are coming together in the quest for reform. By finding solidarity in their quest for equality and justice in immigration reform, advocacy groups of diverse backgrounds and origins are coming together for change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Need Something to Read for Thanksgiving?

If you're traveling for Thanksgiving, you're probably looking for something to read to while away the hours on the train or the bus. Luckily for you, Helen Thorpe, a journalist from Colorado and a long-time FCNL supporter, has just published a new book! "Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America" is a fast-paced piece of narrative journalism that examines questions of identity, nationality, and gender in a world where equal opportunity is called into question.

Thorpe, the wife of Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, masterfully personalizes the immigration debate by documenting the lived experiences of four young Mexican women growing up in Denver, CO. One is a U.S. citizen, another a green card holder, and two are undocumented. The story opens on the eve of their prom and follows the girls through four challenging years. Each desires to pursue her ambitions but some are thwarted by their immigration status.

Then, a high-profile murder - of a police officer by an undocumented immigrant - rocks the Denver community. Thorpe, her husband, and the four young women must struggle to deal with the aftermath.

Publishers Weekly writes, "Thorpe chronicles the girls' lives over four years, delineating the small but arresting differences that will separate them and shape their futures." The Denver Post reports, "Thorpe — a naturalized citizen originally from London — raises huge questions while simultaneously offering an uncommon insider's look at the ramifications of citizenship for communities coping with the issue."

Click here to listen to a podcast of Helen Thorpe discussing the book.

If anything, you should read this book because it takes a close and compassionate look at what it really means to live day to day without citizenship, which so many take for granted. In a world in which people are increasingly willing to adopt an exclusionary definition of what it means to be American, this book will encourage you to reconsider your outlook on immigration.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Our Community: Immigration News

As we prepare for Thanksgiving and gather our loved ones close, let's look forward to a new season in which all families, including immigrant families, can stay together. Immigration reform could be around the corner, but only if momentum keeps building. Take a look at the news on immigration from Monday, November 16 to Monday, November 23. Happy reading!

The Senate has started its final debate on the health care reform bill, which it hopes to pass before the turn of the year. However, the Senate version of the bill restricts health care for immigrants in ways that the House version does not. The House version allows undocumented immigrants to use their own money to buy into the health insurance exchange, if their employers do not cover them. The Senate version does not have this option. Neither would permit undocumented immigrants to receive federal subsidies on their insurance. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are upset at the Obama administration for supporting these restrictions - which reduce access to health care - and they're not afraid to voice their frustrations. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants with life-threatening conditions are being turned away by public hospitals that can no longer afford to serve them.

The Reform Immigration FOR America campaign organized a telephonic town hall with Representative Luis Gutierrez last Wednesday and it was a huge success! Representative Gutierrez was joined by Representatives Nydia Velazquez and Raul Grijalva on a conference call with thousands of people across the country. Rep. Gutierrez restated his commitment to passing humane immigration reform this Congress. He plans to introduce his progressive bill on comprehensive immigration reform this December. Click here to listen to a recording of the campaign's conference call.

The economic recovery hasn't advanced as far as anyone would like and immigrants - just like everyone else - are feeling the pinch. The Migration Policy Institute's new report actually suggests that many immigrant workers have been affected more deeply by the recession than native-born workers. Labor unions have been speaking out in favor of immigration reform, recognizing that improving working conditions for immigrant and low-wage workers will benefit everyone in the long run.

One component of immigration reform that would support workers' rights and economic growth is the creation of a reasonable pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants. However, rising application fees may soon stand in the way of those seeking to come out of the shadows. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is experiencing a major budget shortfall and may increase application fees - again - in order to cover costs. Since 2007, a green card application has cost more than $1000 and a citizenship application costs $595. If fees rise again, many immigrants will be unable to overcome this barrier as they seek to integrate more fully into U.S. society by regularizing their legal status.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has announced plans to audit 1,000 more companies suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants. Following the dismissal of 1,200 janitors in Minnesota in what the Minnesota Public Radio called a 'quiet' immigration raid, this announcement by ICE points to a new enforcement trend. Comprehensive immigration reform would enable undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, ensure that their rights as workers are protected, and reduce incentives for disingenuous employers to exploit their workers. Let's be proactive by reforming the system, instead of ramping up enforcement.

The New York Times has published an excellent editorial on how children in immigrant families are suffering under the current broken immigration system. These children often endure long separations from one or both parents. These separations damage children psychologically, drive them into poverty, and negatively affect their academic performance. They are not well-supported by the current system, as they try to integrate into U.S. society. This is not an issue "out there" but one right at the doorstep. The United States is built on immigration, and the U.S. government would be doing a tremendous disservice to society as a whole by failing to integrate immigrant children into mainstream society.

Friday, November 20, 2009

There's a Better Way: Alternatives to Detention

Stories from Detention - Week 6

Creating alternatives to detention would be a bold step in fixing this country's broken immigration system.  Before we get into alternatives, let's take a brief look back to see what we've learned so far.

We've learned that immigration is a human rights issue.  Protecting the human rights of all immigrants, including those held in detention centers, is critical in order to restore the credibility of the U.S. immigration system.

We've learned that lacking the proper documentation is a civil offense, not a criminal offense.  Even so, undocumented immigrants are being treated as if they were criminals - they are detained in detention centers across the country and deported at times without ever appearing before a judge.  These immigrants deserve better.

We've learned that the conditions in detention facilities are substandard and that members of vulnerable populations are not sufficiently protected.  While these conditions need to be improved, ultimately the number of people held in immigration detention centers must be reduced.

This final post will discuss humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention.

Before we dive into the details, let's watch a video from Human Rights First about the need for alternatives to detention for asylum seekers.  Then we'll take a look at what it will take to create a nation-wide system of alternatives that works for everyone.

In order to move toward a more humane approach to immigration enforcement, the U.S. government should develop alternatives to detention in a systematic way.  Currently, some alternatives exist here and there, but much more could be done to create humane alternatives on a national scale.  A systematic approach to reform will ensure that all immigrants are treated equally.

What would humane alternatives to detention look like?

The first step in creating nation-wide alternatives to detention is establishing a standardized assessment.  When each individual detainee is apprehended, ICE would conduct an assessment that would examine the detainee's risks and needs.  Questions on risks would establish whether the detainee could be considered a flight risk or a threat to public safety.  Questions on needs would determine whether the detainee belongs to a vulnerable population, whether they have a claim to citizenship or legal status, whether they need medical care, and so on.

By conducting this assessment, ICE would have a much better sense of who exactly is in its custody.  The agency would then be well-positioned to consider whether detention is appropriate for each individual.

The next step would be to determine whether it makes sense to detain each individual.  We're not talking about an either-or proposition here, as if either a person is detained or released.  Instead, we're talking about creating a continuum of different alternative-to-detention options.

ICE would use its risk and needs assessment to determine which option is most suitable for each detainee.  That way, ICE would treat each detainee individually instead of using the current one-size-fits-all approach in which detention is the default.

In this continuum, detention would be a last resort.  

Let's start by looking at the least restrictive end of the continuum.  At the far end, immigrant detainees who are non-criminal and do not pose a risk to society could be released on parole.  They would be expected to appear to their court dates on their own.  Others could be released into community-based or faith-based programs, where they would receive support as their cases proceed.  Others could be enrolled in alternative-to-detention programs that would include regular check-ins with an officer or telephonic reporting.  These would be the non-custodial alternatives to detention.

The more restrictive options in the continuum would be alternative forms of detention (as opposed to alternatives to detention).  The most common of these forms is electronic monitoring, through ankle bracelets.  Detainees in these programs could also be expected to check in regularly or adhere to a curfew.  Then, moving up the scale, immigrant detainees could be held in residential facilities.  Finally, those who are deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety could be held in less restrictive detention facilities or traditional detention facilities as appropriate.

Essentially, detention would no longer be the first option.  It would be the last.  This continuum of alternatives would ensure that detention - an extreme measure - would only be used when it is absolutely necessary.

In political parlance, such a continuum would create a presumption against detention.  The burden would be on the U.S. government to prove why immigrants should be detained, instead of on those in its custody to prove why they should not be detained.

Is this continuum of alternatives to detention possible?

It is not only possible, but necessary.  The current immigration detention system is inefficient, costly, and prone to human rights abuses.  Creating alternatives to detention would improve this system.

Pilot programs for alternatives to detention have demonstrated high levels of compliance, in that almost all participants still showed up for their court dates and removal orders.  If people feel that they're receiving due process, if they respect the system and feel that they've been heard, then they're more likely to respect the final decision on removal.

In addition, creating a nation-wide system of alternatives to detention would save money.  Alternatives cost as little as $12 per person per day, while traditional detention costs, on average, $95 per person per day.  Finally, alternatives would make the system fair by keeping people out of detention who don't belong there.

The ultimate goal is to safely and humanely reduce the number of immigrants in detention.  Creating a continuum of alternatives to detention would be a workable solution that would fix the broken immigration enforcement system and uphold this country's commitment to justice.

So call or write your Representatives and Senators and tell them that the time for immigration reform is now.  Encourage them to include humane detention and due process reforms in comprehensive immigration reform.  Contact the Department of Homeland Security and tell them that the government should use its discretion to create alternatives to detention.  Speak up in church, at school, or at home and tell your community about how to support workable solutions to this broken immigration detention system that disrupts the lives of so many each day.

Want to learn more, or share what you've learned with others?  Check out these resources on detention and alternatives to detention.

The Detention Watch Network is an excellent resource for information on detention and due process.  Click here for their alternatives to detention fact sheet.  Click here for the Rights Working Group fact sheet on detention and due process.

"Jailed Without Justice" is an Amnesty International report on the immigration detention system.  "Seeking Protection, Finding Prison" is a Human Rights First report on asylum seekers in detention.

Wondering whether there's a detention center near you?  Click here to see a map of detention facilities around the country.  Want to get some friends together and visit detainees?  Read this detention visitation manual to learn how to connect your community with immigrant detainees.

To read more stories on detention, visit this website from the Detention Watch Network.

To be neutral in a situation of injustice is to have chosen sides already.

~Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Other posts in this series:

Stories from Detention: Introduction

Rights and Dignity Denied: One Woman's Story

No Human Being is Illegal: Civil Offenses

Searching for Justice: Mandatory Detention

Inside the Walls: Detention Conditions

In Need of Protection: Vulnerable Populations

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Our Community: Immigration News

It's been a busy week for immigration news! Grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and take a look at the news on immigration from Monday, November 9 to Monday, November 16.

First, and most importantly, Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security announced on Friday that the Obama administration remains committed to reforming the U.S. immigration system this Congress. Speaking at the Center for American Progress, Napolitano referred to immigration reform as a "three-legged stool" that "includes a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here." Click here for a related New York Times article and here for a video of her remarks.

Lou Dobbs, known for his incendiary remarks on CNN about undocumented immigrants, announced on Wednesday that he is leaving the network. As a New York Times editorial opines, without Dobbs CNN will return to being a more nonpartisan, less ideological source of information on immigration. Members of the Drop Dobbs campaign celebrated his departure.

Sholom Rubashkin, one of the former managers of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa that was the focus of a massive immigration raid in May 2008, has been convicted of 86 financial fraud charges. Rubashkin will likely face a prison sentence of hundreds of years - effectively a life sentence. The Postville community and the families directly affected by the raid continue to seek healing.

Washington, D.C. will become the newest city to participate in Secure Communities, an immigration enforcement program run by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Secure Communities will allow D.C. police to check the fingerprints of those held in local jails in order to identify undocumented immigrants. Those identified as undocumented immigrants by the system will then likely be placed in deportation proceedings. At FCNL, we maintain that federal immigration law should only be enforced by federal agents with the proper training and oversight.

The New York Times reported this morning that remittance flows between the United States and Mexico have actually reversed temporarily due to the economic recession. Relatives outside the United States are sending money to their family members who have recently become unemployed in this country. Remittances are an often-overlooked aspect of immigration - for many countries, the amount of money received as remittances is greater than the amount received from foreign direct investments. In these countries, remittances are often a source of economic stability.

Who, might you ask, is joining the chorus of people calling for immigration reform? The answer: The pope. Pope Benedict XVI said on November 9 that "people should not look upon immigrants as problems, but as fellow brothers and sisters who can be valuable contributors to society." He spoke on global migration patterns, development, and the unequal distribution of resources. And guess who agrees? Google's co-founder's mom has also spoken out, saying that immigrants contribute a wealth of new strengths and ideas to the U.S. economy.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to federal data, the number of arrests at the U.S. border has declined by more than 23% in the past year. This trend can be attributed to declining economic conditions and increased border enforcement, among other factors. However, this decline in arrests does not take away from the need to realign border enforcement with humanitarian values in a way that respects fragile environments, preserves religious sites, and integrates the concerns of border communities.

Here's something you may not have heard of in mainstream media: Last month, there was a 'quiet' immigration raid in Minnesota in which 1,200 undocumented janitors were fired from their jobs. Minnesota Public Radio reported this raid on November 9. While workplace raids have been significantly less common under the Obama administration, immigration enforcement actions like this one still force undocumented workers to stay in the shadows.

I'll leave you with a powerful op-ed written by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA). Representative Roybal-Allard commends Secretary Napolitano for the administration's commitment to detention reform, but maintains that Congressional action is still needed to ensure the humane treatment of immigrant detainees. Enacting her bill, the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act, would be a strong step in the right direction. She writes, "With the adoption of these reforms, America’s immigration jails—long a national embarrassment—will finally reflect our laws and our values."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Need of Protection: Vulnerable Populations

Stories from Detention - Week 5

If you were in detention, what would your needs be? What if your children had no one to care for them at home? What if you were pregnant? What if you had a heart condition? What if you had been abused?

In our last post in this series, we looked at how the conditions in detention centers often do not meet the basic needs of immigrant detainees. However, detainees' needs differ according to their circumstances. Some people, such as those fleeing persecution or torture abroad, are particularly vulnerable and need additional protections.

Right now, when people seeking asylum try to enter the United States, they are usually detained in county jails, privatized prisons, and ICE-controlled detention centers as their cases are processed. These facilities are highly restrictive. They are not appropriate for asylum-seekers who have already had traumatic experiences. Being held in prison may actually trigger memories of past trauma and cause lasting psychological harm.

For example, let's say you were apprehended in your country of origin for political activism and then tortured in a clinical setting. You flee to the United States but then being held in a facility with cramped cells, fluorescent lights, metal tables, and armed guards could trigger flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Basically, the jail-like conditions in detention facilities can aggravate post-traumatic stress disorder for asylum-seekers.

Detainees fleeing persecution must deal with the emotional and physical effects of past traumas while simultaneously trying to take care of their basic needs, such as their health. In this week's video clip, we will hear the story of an asylum-seeker from Cameroon. When she arrived at an airport in the United States, her infant child was taken from her and she was detained for 11 months without appropriate medical care.

Please note: This video clip is mostly audio, without visuals, because this asylum-seeker has chosen to remain anonymous. Please turn up your volume and take the time to listen to her story.

This asylum-seeker did not pose a threat to public safety. Still, the U.S. government held her in a detention center while her asylum claim was reviewed. Meanwhile, her family and her health suffered. She, like members of other vulnerable populations, was caught up in a system that fails to recognize the needs of individual detainees.

Who might be considered vulnerable? Vulnerable immigrants include asylum-seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, the sick and elderly, LGBT immigrants, pregnant women, families, green card holders, and the parents of U.S. citizen children.

People in these categories are in need of additional protections, which the current system does not provide. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not yet have a national system in place to make sure that vulnerable detainees are treated humanely.

However, DHS recently announced plans to overhaul the immigration detention system. Here are a few specific changes that DHS should make to ensure that vulnerable detainees are protected:

DHS should develop a nationwide assessment that would be conducted for each detainee when they are first apprehended. This assessment would determine the needs and risks for each detainee. That way, DHS would have a much better sense of who's in their custody and what kind of protections and services they may need.

DHS should enforce humane detention standards, including special provisions for vulnerable populations. They should improve oversight in all their facilities - including privatized facilities that they contract out to - to make sure that basic rights are protected and that abuses are not tolerated in the system.

DHS should ensure that immigrant detainees each get their fair day in court. This would mean improving access to lawyers, law libraries, and telephones; making translation services available; and refraining from transferring detainees arbitrarily to other facilities around the country.

DHS should prioritize vulnerable detainees - like the asylum-seeker who describes her experience in today's video - for alternative to detention programs and release into the community. Most immigrant detainees are non-criminal and do not pose a risk to society. They should be held in the least restrictive setting possible.

Next week, in our final post in this blog series, we'll explore what these alternatives to detention might look like. Creating alternatives to detention would be a strong step in fixing this broken immigration enforcement system.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In Our Community: Immigration News

You've probably been steeped already in the news coverage of the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Tear yourself away for a moment (I know, it's hard to compete with the Cookie Monster) and take the time to read about the news on immigration from Monday, November 2 to Monday, November 9.

People from all over the country continue to speak out in unison, saying that the 287(g) program has got to go. This program, which deputizes local police officers to enforce immigration laws, has caused widespread racial and religious profiling. It terrorizes communities by allowing the police to arrest people they suspect of being undocumented immigrants, with little oversight or training. In Tennessee, Jan Snider has written an excellent op-ed on how the 287(g) program tears apart families. This program is broken beyond repair and must be terminated in order to restore trust between police officers and the communities they are charged to protect.

Five men from New York who were detained, abused, and deported just after the attacks of September 11, 2001 have just settled their case with the U.S. government to the tune of $1.26 million. These men were caught up in post-9/11 sweeps that relied primarily on racial and religious profiling and targeted Arab, Muslim, and South Asian men. They had no terrorist ties. They were then abused while in detention - they were beaten, strip-searched, deprived of sleep, and more - and then deported. We commend the Center for Constitutional Rights for assisting these men with a class action lawsuit to expose the human rights violations that the attacks of September 11, 2001 engendered.

Private prison corporations continue to profit off of detaining immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. More than 57% of the immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security are held in private prisons. The GEO Group is adding 1,100 beds to its immigration detention facility in Aurora, CO. CCA is trying to get a contract with ICE to build a new 2,200-bed detention center in Los Angeles. These corporations operate for profit, with little oversight of their prison guards and even less concern about the conditions in their detention centers. Privatizing the immigration detention system is not a workable solution to the immigration dilemma. The Department of Homeland Security should work to improve oversight and develop nationwide alternatives to detention for immigrants. Check out our blog series Stories from Detention for more information.

When I was scanning the blogs this week, I came across a valuable article offering four lessons that should encourage lawmakers to keep immigration reform on the Congressional agenda. As the House passes the health care reform bill and the Senate continues to debate, the political will to work on immigration reform may be dissipating. If comprehensive immigration reform is to become a reality during this Congress, it is important to encourage your Members of Congress to keep immigration reform on the agenda. This is not merely a question of fixing a broken immigration system - it is an issue of life and death for many of the immigrants waiting in long visa backlogs or detained in U.S. prisons.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Inside the Walls: Detention Conditions

Stories from Detention - Week 4

Imagine that you are on your way to pick your son up at school and you run a red light. A police officer pulls you over and arrests you because he suspects that you are an undocumented immigrant. After processing, you are held in a local prison. The prison is overcrowded so, two days later, you are put in leg and belly chains and transferred to an immigration detention facility in a remote location in rural Texas. What do you do?

You don't know whether your son is safe. Your visa proving you are legally permitted to live in the United States is back at home in the drawer. Your blood pressure medication, which you need to take every day, is on the table at home too. You only have the $27 in your pocket when you were arrested. You are afraid that you will be deported.

Many of the 440,000 people who will be detained in the immigration detention system this year face situations similar to this one. They are caught up in a system that has weak guidelines and little oversight. Even their basic needs often go unmet.

The conditions in many immigration detention facilities are terrible. Detainees do not receive adequate health care, have trouble contacting their families, and are frequently transferred - without warning - to detention centers far away from their homes. In today's video clip, we will learn the story of a young immigrant woman who was placed in seven detention centers over three years.

Even though Agatha Joseph's daughter is a green card holder, she was detained for a minor offense on her record for which she had already paid a fine. In the last post in this series, we discussed how mandatory detention policies punish immigrants retroactively and disproportionately for minor crimes they have committed in the past.

This young woman was transferred to seven different facilities in three years. Such transfers are common and make it extremely difficult for immigrant detainees to stay in touch with their families and their lawyers. In addition, guards sometimes threaten to transfer detainees to another facility if they complain about conditions.

Frequent transfers also complicate medical treatment. Immigrant detainees find it very difficult to get any medical care at all, much less timely care for any illnesses or injuries. In addition, immigrant detainees who have experienced torture, abuse, or other trauma often also need mental health care. These detainees may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They are actually at risk of re-traumatization while in detention, since the conditions in detention may remind them strongly of their past traumatic experiences.

Immigrant detainees face a number of other unreasonable restrictions while in detention, many of which amount to violations of human and civil rights. Just to give you a sense of the range of violations…

  • Over 57% of immigrant detainees are held in county or city prisons where they are mixed in with the local prison population. They are not adequately protected against physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. Many of these facilities are overcrowded as well.
  • In many facilities, immigrant detainees lack access to fresh air and exercise. Some facilities do not allow detainees to spend any time outside. Some only permit exercise two or four days a week while others schedule exercise at unreasonable hours of the day.
  • Many immigrant detainees lack access to religious services, pastoral care, and a diet in keeping with their religious practices. In one detention center, detainees observing Ramadan had fasted during the day and requested hot water in the evening with which to make soup to break their fast. The guards refused and, when the detainees objected, the guards threatened to put them in solitary confinement if they continued to complain.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 84% of immigrant detainees are not represented by a lawyer. As they prepare to argue their own cases, they lack access to necessary resources and materials. Detainees rely on the facility's telephones in order to contact family members, law offices, and consulates. However, they may be required to wait as 40 or 50 detainees share 2 or 3 phones. In addition, they are unable to make free calls to pro bono legal services. The detention facilities' law libraries do not often have immigration-related legal materials in appropriate languages and translation and interpretation services are nearly non-existent. Legal orientation programs are rare. In sum, immigrant detainees are often reliant on ICE officers for information about their case - a clear conflict of interests.
The conditions in immigration detention centers are abysmal by nearly any standard. By expressing your concerns on the conditions in these facilities, you can urge Congress and the Obama administration to take three steps to fix this broken system.

First, you can urge ICE to provide detainees with adequate medical treatment including initial medical screenings, primary care and emergency care. This step would avoid needless and preventable detainee deaths.

Second, you can urge Congress to pass legislation on detention standards. In the House, there are two bills on this subject: the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act and the HELP for Separated Children Act. In the Senate, there are two bills as well: the Strong STANDARDS Act and the Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act. These bills would create binding, clear, enforceable standards to ensure that the conditions in detention facilities are improved.

Third, you can urge the Department of Homeland Security to create independent oversight of detention facilities. This step would promote accountability and ensure that all immigrant detainees are treated fairly and humanely.

Improving the conditions in detention centers is an important step in fixing the immigration detention system. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, ICE must no longer detain as many people as it does currently. Stay tuned for more posts in this series that will discuss how to safely and humanely reduce the number of immigrants in detention.

Senate Rejects Amendment on Second-Class System of Justice

Great news! Yesterday at 6:24 PM the Senate voted against an amendment that would have compelled all Guantanamo detainees suspected of participating in the attacks of September 11, 2001 to be tried by military commission. If this amendment had passed, it would have delayed the closing of the Guantanamo prison and would have prevented Guantanamo detainees from being prosecuted fairly in U.S. civilian courts. With a 54-45 vote, the Senate voted against the amendment.

Thank you to those of you who called your Senators yesterday and the day before, for speaking out against military commissions as a second-class system of justice. Thanks to your efforts, Congress and the Obama administration still have the opportunity to shut down the Guantanamo prison, which has become an international symbol of torture and human rights abuses.

Looking for more information? For a news release by the ACLU on this amendment, please click here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Take Action: Tell Your Senators to Vote No on Graham Amendment!

Your Senators need to hear from you! They will vote tomorrow (Thursday) on an amendment that, if passed, would block access to the most effective and humane courts for criminal prosecutions of Guantanamo detainees.

This amendment favors military commissions, which do not achieve the same standard of justice as federal civilian courts. The amendment, introduced by Senator Graham (SC), would prohibit funding for Guantanamo detainees to be prosecuted in U.S. civilian courts. Detainees would instead be tried by military commissions. However, military commissions are fundamentally flawed. The ACLU has released a press statement calling military commissions a "second class system of justice."

This amendment would needlessly tie the President's hands in determining how to process Guantanamo detainees' cases. President Obama signed an executive order in January 2009 stating that the U.S. government would close the Guantanamo prison within one year. The Graham amendment would likely delay the closing of Guantanamo.

Call your Senators today and tell them to vote NO on the Graham amendment (S.A. 2669) to the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2847).
By telling your Senators that Guantanamo detainees should be tried in federal civilian courts, not military commissions, you can help to repair the standing of the U.S. as a country committed to human rights and the rule of law. Call your Senators today at (202) 224-3121.

Looking for more information? Click here for a news article on the Graham amendment. Click here for a coalition letter against this amendment signed by prominent human rights organizations.

Congress Considers Restricting Health Care Coverage for Legal Immigrants

Members of Congress in both the House and the Senate continue to debate over how much health care coverage to provide to legal immigrants. It is time for Congress to recognize that health care coverage for legal immigrants would benefit not only immigrants but the entire U.S. population.

Don't believe me? Read Roger Cohen's op-ed from October 4th in the New York Times. Cohen writes, "When it comes to health, we're all in this together. Pooling the risk between everybody is the most efficient way to forge a healthier society."

Take swine flu, for instance. If my neighbor gets vaccinated, I'm a little bit healthier. If half of my neighbors get vaccinated, I'm in even better shape. If all of my neighbors get vaccinated, our whole community benefits.

Fundamentally, by ensuring that our neighbors are able to access health care, we keep ourselves healthier as well. Healthy communities are productive communities.

Legal immigrants cannot wait 5 years (as some lawmakers are recommending) before receiving health care coverage. The U.S. public as a whole cannot afford to wait that long to allow legal immigrants to integrate into the health care system. Preventative care now will pay off tremendously in the long run. In today's New York Times article, Prof. Steven P. Wallace (UCLA) says, "You can either keep those immigrants healthy now, or exclude them and wait until they get really sick, then pay for it down the line."

The United States needs workable solutions for health care reform. It should be common sense to allow legal immigrants in participate in the health insurance exchange and receive subsidized care if they qualify. It's time to choose solutions that allow an inclusive health care reform bill to move forward now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

White House Ends HIV Travel Ban

Great news! On Friday, President Obama signed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009. This legislation effectively ends the travel ban that, until now, had prevented HIV-positive individuals from traveling or immigrating to the United States.

The HIV travel ban originated in the Reagan administration and was strengthened with legislation in 1987. Friday's historic legislation overturns the ban and takes a bold step in reducing discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.

Restricting travel for people living with HIV/AIDS not only violates international laws on the freedom of movement, but also approaches the question of how to deal with the HIV pandemic from the wrong angle. Preventing HIV-positive individuals from immigrating to the United States is a short-sighted measure. In order to effectively curtail the HIV pandemic, it is necessary to both pursue preventative measures and make treatment widely available.

People living with HIV/AIDS desperately need regular access to antiretroviral medications as well as adequate treatment for any opportunistic infections that they may develop due to their compromised immune systems. HIV-positive women need access to medications preventing mother-to-child transmission. The pharmaceutical industry should not profit excessively off of the production of medications that treat HIV/AIDS -- instead, these medications should be made widely available to HIV-positive populations in resource-poor countries.

In addition, health education programs, women's empowerment programs, and access to contraceptives are three essential components of an effective prevention strategy for the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Until Congress and the Obama adminstration tackle these components - including directly addressing global gender inequality issues - then the global pandemic will likely continue to spread.

I applaud President Obama for enacting this legislation that ends the HIV travel ban. I hope that this is indicative of a larger strategy to effectively address the HIV pandemic directly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Our Community: Immigration News

Happy Halloween! Here is the news on immigration from Monday, October 26 to Monday, November 2. Grab a cup of coffee and take a look!

If you only read one article today, read the New York Times article on immigrant detainees seeking legal representation while held in the Varick Street detention center in Greenwich Village. One hundred detainees in this facility submitted a petition to New York lawyers asking for pro bono legal services. However, the lawyers are having trouble working with clients who may be arbitrarily transferred to detention centers in other states without notice. This article lays out some fundamental concerns with the U.S. immigration detention system. For additional information, take a look at our most recent post in the Stories from Detention series.

However, immigrant detainees don't only need lawyers - they also need access to adequate medical care. As this detainee's death demonstrates, immediate changes are needed to ensure that immigrant detainees receive medical treatment both for pre-existing conditions and for illnesses and disabilities that arise during their stay in detention facilities. The number of preventable deaths that occur in the immigration detention system are absolutely unreasonable.

The National Association for Evangelicals aren't the only faith-based group supporting comprehensive immigration reform - over 100 Caribbean-American pastors just visited Congress to support immigration reform and Lutheran bishops raised concerns on immigration recently as well. In a committee meeting on October 28-29, they agreed to support immigration reform and called for a suspension of raids until comprehensive immigration reform has been enacted. The bishops also expressed concerns for families separated by the immigration system, saying, "We would like comprehensive immigration reform right now. We want it to be humane -- a kind of immigration reform that protects U.S. borders but also protects family interests so that families aren't divided."

In an exciting development, police leaders have also come out in support of immigration reform. Law enforcement officials from California, Texas, Iowa, and elsewhere spoke in a telephonic press conference on how the current immigration system undermines trust between police officers and communities. They also wrote op-eds expressing their main concern: when immigrants are afraid that the police will deport them, they are less likely to report crimes and abuse. This undermines public safety and creates an adversarial relationship between communities and law enforcement officers. One sheriff made a particularly strong statement: "Law enforcement needs to stay focused on its mission of preventing and investigating crimes, not checking immigration status. Comprehensive immigration reform is overdue and needed from a law enforcement perspective."

This lack of trust between police officers and communities has a disproportionate effect on immigrant women, who too often choose not to report domestic violence for fear of being forced to leave the country. In related news, the Obama administration has given a strong signal that it supports granting asylum to women who are victims of domestic abuse. If the United States is open to recognizing domestic violence as a possible claim for asylum, this would be a tremendous step forward for women fleeing horrific abuses abroad.

Labor organizations have also recognized that immigration reform would benefit all the workers they represent - not only immigrant workers but also low-income workers across the country. The AFL-CIO, National Employment Law Project and American Rights at Work Education Fund have come together to say that the rights of all workers must be protected. They noted that ICE's workplace raids have made it harder for all workers, not just immigrant workers, to raise grievances about working conditions. Immigration reform would be an important step to reducing the exploitation of workers across the board.

Finally, Representative Joe Crowley (NY) and 110 of his colleagues have just submitted a letter to President Obama stressing the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform. The letter itself is available here. Crowley stated, "This is a moral imperative - the time is now." Even as legislation on health care reform continues to make its way through the halls of Congress, these legislators recognize the importance of keeping immigration reform at the heart of their agenda for the upcoming months.