The Cost of Detention Centers Is the Dignity and Rights of Thousands of South Asian Immigrants
The current immigration detention system only serves to traumatize immigrants, separate families, and violate the rights of vulnerable populations. A new bill in Congress aims to protect the civil rights and dignity of detained immigrants.
By Gisela Perez Kusakawa and Hannah Woerner
In late September, the House of Representatives held two congressional hearings on the oversight, expansion, and inhumane use of detention centers by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These two hearings were held by the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship and the other by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Oversight Management & Accountability Subcommittee. These hearings addressed issues of inadequate medical care, dismal facility conditions, inappropriate disciplinary methods and lack of independent oversight of ICE facilities and detention activities. Advancing Justice | AAJC submitted testimonies for these hearings in support of the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, and other immigration reforms.
During one hearing, Denis Davydov testified on his experience being detained by ICE for 46 days despite having an asylum case as a gay asylee from Russia living with HIV. Davydov was put in handcuffs and ankle bracelets, and had a chain wrapped around his waist. For those 46 days, he was known as “Mr. 876 Russia”. This is just one example of how current immigration and detention policies systematically dehumanizes individuals and hides the real human cost of detention.
The human impact of current immigration policies and the detention system on immigrant communities and families is tremendous particularly on South Asian immigrants. Thousands of South Asian immigrants are harmed by the Government’s detention system. Indian nationals alone have the highest number of detainees of all Asian immigrants as of June 2018. There was an alarmingly high number of 2,376 Indian nationals detained compared to the total of 4,881 Asian immigrants detained. In total, ICE detained over 3,000 South Asian migrants in June 2018 alone. From October 2014 to April 2018, Border Patrol arrested over 17,000 South Asians.
Many South Asian immigrants are asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution and seeking protection in the United States under our refugee and asylum laws. The majority of South Asian asylum seekers arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to find safety. However, instead of finding refuge and safety, many are re-traumatized and quickly funneled into brutal and inhumane immigration jails. They become subject to a series of injustices that goes against our core American values.
One such individual was Ajay Kumar, an Indian asylum seeker. Rather than freedom and safety, Kumar was put into an El Paso ICE detention facility. For one year, he suffered due to inadequate medical care. Court documents contain the affidavit of an independent doctor who, after reviewing the quality of Kumar’s medical care along with hundreds of pages of ICE’s medical records, concluded that Kumar received “the worst medical care [he] ha[d] seen in [his] ten years of practice,” and that medical staff at the El Paso detention center lacked knowledge about basic medical facts and did not fully understand the medical consequences of prolonged starvation.
Kumar is one of thousands of South Asians who suffered ethical, medical, and human rights abuses in detention centers across the country. Detention centers are not humane and are simply not safe for detainees. When others stand up for their rights, they face severe retaliation. In the El Paso ICE detention facility, South Asian asylum seekers protesting their prolonged detention by going on hunger strike have been retaliated against with solitary confinement and abusive force-feeding practices. Force-feeding inflicts severe pain on detainees, and the U.S. military has acknowledged that force-feeding violates medical ethics and international law. In Victorville, California, South Asian and Sikh detainees have been denied religious accommodations, including being banned from wearing their turbans, being forced to cut their hair, and not being provided with vegetarian or vegan meals. Detainees, including multiple Bangladeshi detainees at the Stewart Detention Facility in Georgia, have also been punished with solitary confinement for refusing to work for $1 per day. Additionally, inadequate or non-existent language access means that many South Asian detainees are unable to communicate with detention guards, medical personnel, or immigration judges.
The dangerously subpar medical conditions at the El Paso immigration jail are part of a much larger problem. ICE detainees across the country regularly receive inadequate medical care, including unreasonable delays in care, poor practitioner and nursing care, inadequate emergency response, and inappropriate use of solitary confinement for mentally ill and suicidal detainees. A study of recent detainee deaths shows that more than half of the deaths in ICE custody are due to poor medical treatment.
To make matters worse, Congress and the Trump administration are well aware of the deplorable conditions in ICE and Border Patrol detention facilities, yet have failed to take decisive action to remedy the ongoing human rights abuses. In May, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (DHS OIG) released a report on dangerous overcrowding within the El Paso detention center operated by Border Patrol. According to the report, nearly 900 detainees were confined in a facility designed to hold a maximum of 125 people. In one cell with a maximum capacity of 35, ICE locked up 155 detainees. As a result of the severe overcrowding, some detainees were confined to standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks, unable to lie down to sleep. With limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees were forced to wear soiled clothing for weeks.
Despite these human rights abuses, the Trump administration continues to expand the massive immigration detention system with additional Congressional funding for fiscal year 2020. The immigration detention system is already bloated — as of August 10, the number of detention beds had skyrocketed to over 55,530, even though by law DHS is only funded to maintain around 42,000 beds for immigrant detainees. Even though DHS already grossly overspends its budget, DHS transferred $271 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, and other accounts to pay for extra detention beds. The Trump administration wants to continue expanding the massive immigration detention system with additional Congressional funding for fiscal year 2020.
The Government must stop this escalation of immigration enforcement and keep families together. Families and asylum seekers belong in homes with their loved ones, not locked up indefinitely in cages. Instead of funneling more taxpayer dollars into a system riddled with abuses, we should end mandatory detention and seek alternative avenues to enforce our civil immigration laws. Nearly 9,000 immigrants detained by ICE and Border Patrol have passed their credible fear interview (CFI), an initial government test demonstrating that an asylum applicant has a well-founded fear of persecution if deported to their home country. The CFI interview is the first step in a long process to gain asylum protection in the U.S. Under the Obama administration, over 80 percent of detainees who passed their CFI interviews were released from detention. Alternative-to-detention programs are highly effective in ensuring that immigrants attend court hearings. In 2017, 97 percent of immigrants showed up to their court hearing, and for asylum seekers the rate was even higher, with 100 percent of asylum seekers in alternative-to-detention programs showing up to court that year.
Moreover, detention should not become an industry for profiteering. The use of private detention centers must be terminated and Congress should require that there be stronger protections in facilities, increased oversight and transparency, and stronger protections for vulnerable populations. Additionally, Congress should have stronger oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure that ICE does not overspend their budget constraints. There should be budget cuts to ICE and CPB for their enforcement, detention, and deportation activities. Rather than spending these resources criminalizing immigrants and families, we should invest in education, infrastructure, health care, and housing. We should not be destabilizing whole communities, targeting specific groups, and separating families.
We must return to our core American values. America is a country of immigrants. We must work to create solutions to our immigration system and support naturalization and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
To protect the dignity and welfare of immigrants and families, Congress should pass the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. This bill would end the use of private facilities for detention, restore due process, repeal mandatory detention, and ensure accountability in our detention system. It would protect the men, women, and children who are harmed by systematic violations of ethical, Constitutional, and human rights. Every day that our current immigration enforcement system continues is another day that immigrants are forced to suffer human rights abuses. We cannot let these abuses continue, and must work together to protect the immigrant communities and families.
Gisela Perez Kusakawa is the NAPABA Law Foundation Community Law Fellow at Advancing Justice | AAJC and Hannah Woerner is the former NAPABA Law Foundation Community Law Fellow.