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.

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