Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Illegal Immigrants: Thousands languish in US detention facilities without hearings

Source: Amnesty International

Effective Alternatives to Detention Could Save Up to $2,500 Per Person Per Month

Tens of thousands of people languish in U.S. immigration detention facilities every year -- including a number of U.S. citizens -- without receiving a hearing to determine whether their detention is warranted, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) said in a report released today. The report, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, shows that, in just over a decade, the number of immigrants in detention each day has tripled from 10,000 in 1996 to more than 30,000 in 2008. Numbers are likely to increase in 2009. A majority of the detainees have extreme difficulty retaining a lawyer or help navigating the complex legal process. In some cases, individuals become so desperate that they agree to deportation even if their circumstances don't warrant it.

The people detained include lawful permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and survivors of torture and human trafficking. For some people, an immigration official is the final and only decision maker on detention -- others receive no detention review at all. In the current system, rife with errors and lacking meaningful oversight, being detained in and of itself can virtually seal an immigrant's fate.

"America should be outraged by the scale of human rights abuses occurring within its own borders," said Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA. "Officials are locking up thousands of human beings without due process and holding them in a system that is impossible to navigate without the legal equivalent of GPS. The United States has long been a country of immigrants, and whether they have been here five years or five generations, their human rights are to be respected. The U.S. government must ensure that every person in immigration detention has a hearing to determine whether that detention is necessary."

The AIUSA report shows that the average cost of locking up an immigrant is $95 per person, per day, or approximately $2,850 per month -- which amounts to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year. Effective alternatives to detention are available and cheaper -- costing as little as $12 per day. A study of one alternative program documented a 91-percent appearance rate before immigration courts.

According to international law and standards, detention should only be used in exceptional circumstances, must be justified in each individual case and must be subject to judicial review.

For many immigrants, release from detention is out of reach because bonds are set impossibly high. And although immigration judges have the authority in some cases to release immigrants on their own recognizance or with a minimum bond of $1,500, reports indicate that the judges are now less likely to do so. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), in 2006, immigration judges in the United States declined to set bond in 14,750 cases. In 2007, the number increased to 22,254, and in the first five months of 2008, immigration judges had already refused to set bond in 21,842 cases.

Moreover, lawful permanent residents can be placed in "mandatory detention" with no right to a bond hearing before an immigration judge or judicial body. The categories of crimes that trigger mandatory detention are broad and difficult to define. In one case, a 37-year-old lawful permanent resident was deported to Haiti for possession of stolen bus pass transfers. The court found that these convictions constituted two "crimes of moral turpitude" warranting mandatory detention and deportation.

Even more astounding, in 2007 alone, legal service providers identified 322 individuals in detention who may have been able to claim U.S. citizenship. For instance, Mr. W, born in Minnesota, was placed in immigration detention in Florence, AZ. Because he was detained, he could not access his birth certificate. He was finally released after a month of working for a dollar a day in the prison kitchen to earn the $30 necessary to order a copy of his birth certificate.

Immigrants are often put in excessive restraints, including handcuffs, belly chains and leg restraints, and are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses. Immigrant detainees also find it difficult to get medical attention; at least 74 immigrants have died in detention during the last five years.

To rectify these issues, AIUSA calls on the U.S. government to:

* Pass legislation mandating that immigration detention be used only in exceptional circumstances, and ensuring that alternative non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or affordable bond, are always considered first;
* Ensure that all immigrants and asylum seekers have access to individualized hearings before a judicial body at the outset on the lawfulness, necessity and appropriateness of detention;
* Enact enforceable human rights detention standards in all facilities that house immigration detainees and hold facilities accountable for any violations.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits