Immigrant advocacy groups cheered in 2009 when the federal government admitted shortcomings in the way it detains people awaiting deportation or hearings before immigration judges. In a lengthy report by Dora Schriro, the former director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, the feds acknowledged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly called ICE, “is comprised primarily of law enforcement personnel with extensive expertise performing removal functions, but not in the design and delivery of detention facilities and community-based alternatives.”
A new report card from three of those advocacy groups, released this month, paints a mixed picture of progress since then. Compiled by Detention Watch Network, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, the report notes that ICE leadership “has continued to demonstrate a strong commitment to achieving systemic change within the next three to five years.” But it’s fallen short of loftier goals, failing to tackle alleged human rights violations within the detention system and to expand alternatives to incarceration.
ICE’s Southwest office in San Antonio, which overseas most of South Texas, did not respond to a request for comment about the findings in the report.
Human rights abuses
Several incidents have marred the human rights record of immigration detention facilities in Texas. As recently as June, the privately run T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor was thrust into the spotlight when a guard was accused of sexually assaulting female detainees. (A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Texas Immigration Clinic also targeted the center in 2007 over treatment of children confined there.) The Port Isabel Detention Center in Willacy County witnessed a hunger strike this year after detainees claimed mistreatment by guards and a high number of unannounced transfers. There have also been alleged instances of sexual assault at the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall. In one of the most notorious instances of abuse, detainee Gregorio De La Rosa of Laredo was beaten to death in 2001 after men stuffed socks with padlocks and beat him inside the facility. De La Rosa's family prevailed in a lawsuit against the detention center’s owner and operator, the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp.), which was found to have covered up the attack.
Despite ICE’s progress in implementing some reforms, the report notes, they have translated to little improvement “on the ground.”
“Immigrant advocates nationwide continue to report widespread due-process and human rights violations, including the over-reliance on incarceration, mistreatment by guards, denial of access to legal service providers, inadequate medical care, misuse of solitary confinement, and discrimination against sexual minorities,” such as gays, lesbians and transsexuals, the report alleges.
Failed efforts to improve transparency and oversight have contributed to the continuation of a disturbing status quo, the report says. “Lack of transparency remains a pervasive cultural problem at ICE. In March 2010, a leaked memo from a senior ICE official outlined that deportations were 'well under' the agency's 'goal' of 400,000, contradicting previous assurances from ICE that it is no longer using arrest quotas,” the report says.
The emphasis on keeping the immigration detention population at record levels only perpetuates the current broken system, says Bob Libal, the outreach coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based nonprofit that advocates for improved private-detention oversight. “We’ve seen over and over again in Texas that ICE just isn’t capable of maintaining a system so vast that maintains people’s human rights," Libal says. "I think the sexual assaults are I think a very good indicator of that.”
The Texas Tribune reported in May that the size of the detention system and an insufficient number of federal immigration judges translates to wait times of more than a year in some cases before a detainee is granted even an initial hearing. As of May, Texas had more than 18,000 unresolved cases, including an estimated 5,900 in Houston, 3,430 in San Antonio, 3,250 in Dallas and 3,200 in El Paso.
Alternatives to detention
Described by the feds as “the community-based supervision strategies that make up a significant portion of less restrictive conditions of control,” alternative-to-detention, or ATD, programs received less than $70 million out of a $1.7 billion budget for immigration detention, according to the report, despite Schriro’s recommendations for a “nationwide implementation plan” last fall. Advocacy groups argue that sheer size of the system — it detained about 400,000 people last fiscal year — makes it nearly impossible to treat inmates humanely and grant them access to better legal representation.
The report asserts that the feds made good on their promise to improve inmate identification and location by rolling out an online system. Moreover, ICE kept up its end of the bargain in developing a risk-assessment tool to identify inmates who qualify for ATD programs and in consolidating the program from two private contractors to one.
ICE received low marks, however, for failing to implement ATD programs nationally, as was recommended a year ago. Only 23,000 detainees, or less than 6 percent of the total detainee population, participated in alternatives to incarceration, the report says. “While these figures represent funding appropriated by Congress, they fall far below what should be expected of a nationwide ATD implementation plan intended to lower detention rate,” according to the report.
During the same year the federal government worked toward reforms, it also increased deportations and expanded a controversial program that helps local jails identify possible deportation cases. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced it removed more people than ever before from the U.S. during the 2010 fiscal year. More than 392,000 undocumented person were deported, including more than 195,000 with criminal records. “The fiscal year 2010 statistics represent increases of more than 23,000 removals overall and 81,000 criminal removals compared to fiscal year 2008 — a more than 70 percent increase in removals of criminal aliens from the previous administration,” DHS said in a news release.
Two weeks ago, DHS announced that the Secure Communities program — which compares the fingerprints of anyone arrested against those in a database to determine if the individual can be removed under immigration laws — had expanded to all 254 Texas counties.
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