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The Immigration Detention System: “Dangerously Broken,” and in Need of Reform

Mike Corradini, JD on December 7, 2011

The incremental steps taken by the US government to reform the immigration detention system have been outmatched by the furious pace at which people have been forced through it in the last two years. With nearly 34,400 immigrants detained every night, the need for strong, binding regulations and comprehensive oversight has never been greater.

But despite the promises of the Obama administration in 2009 to overhaul the way we detain immigrants, little has been accomplished two years later. As the New York Times points out in a recent editorial, the immigration detention system is still “dangerously broken.”

The immigration system was never intended to be used as a system to punish immigrants for criminal convictions. While many detained immigrants have been convicted of crimes, many more, including detained asylum seekers, have no criminal convictions; others have only been convicted of minor offenses, such as driving without a license.

And those who have been convicted of crimes are transferred to immigration detention centers after being released from criminal custody – not for additional punishment, but to ensure that they attend immigration court hearings and comply with the orders of the Immigration Judges. Nevertheless, as the Times points out, approximately half of all immigration detainees are held in actual jails – the same proportion as in 2009 – while many others are held in jail-like facilities.

Given the strong incentives that private correctional corporations and local and state law enforcement agencies have to preserve the current system and expand the use of detention, it may be wishful thinking to hope for a wholesale shift toward a civil detention model. But DHS does have the power to drastically improve conditions in detention facilities, which are often shockingly poor. Indeed, DHS has devoted some of its reform efforts since 2009 to improving the quality of medical care in detention facilities, and has made strides in areas such as treatment authorization, standardizing medical records, and screening detainees for medical and mental health issues.

But there is still a drastic shortage of health professionals working in detention facilities, especially in those located in remote areas or that have small populations of immigration detainees. And anecdotal evidence suggests that detainees with serious health problems who are not subject to mandatory detention are often released from custody when they press their medical concerns, instead of being provided with medical care.

At the most basic level, doctors, lawyers, and advocates continue to have difficulty accessing detainees’ medical records, which are not even transferred when a detainee is moved to a different facility.

Our government has made a commitment to detaining 34,300 immigrants every night, and has said that it wants to improve conditions in detention centers. It is time to match these words with actions by creating a non-penal detention system, implementing strong and binding standards, and providing detainees with adequate legal services and medical care.

Until the administration fully commits to fixing this dangerously broken system, it will remain a shameful reminder of how far we have fallen in our treatment of immigrants and our commitment to human rights.

Places: United States