As the Trump administration continues its crackdown on undocumented immigrants—both the newly arrived and long-term residents of the U.S.—plans and funding for more detention centers proceed while abuses, human rights violations, and poor conditions in existing facilities and concerns about asylum seekers remain ongoing issues.
The U.S. operates the largest immigration detention system in the world, detaining close to 360,000 people in 2016 in more than 200 facilities across the country. Each day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) houses between 31,000 and 41,000 in federal and privately-run prisons as well as local jails. Soon after taking office, President Trump called for congressional appropriations to expand detention capacity further, to detain up to 48,000, and the 2018 budget includes an additional $1.2 billion for this purpose.
At the same time, immigrant rights and advocacy organizations, the KBI among them, have released report after report on sub-standard detention conditions as well as abuses and human rights violations by both ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Many of these documents note how rapid expansion of detention space or staff increases the risks faced by detainees. Now, a recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report has also found numerous instances of mistreatment, standards violations, and safety and health concerns.
Here, we summarize the administration’s detention expansion plans and the concurrent worries about non-compliance and violations, along with recommendations about how you can advocate for greater oversight and more humane policies.
Detention Expansion: Despite a 24% decline in border apprehensions in fiscal 2017, ICE is forging ahead with growing its immigration detention system, indicating that the extra detention beds are likely intended for long-term, “interior” residents who are undocumented and people arriving at our borders to seek safety. Between January 22 and September 22, 2017, ICE arrested 97,482 undocumented immigrants, a 43% increase over the same period in 2016; 28,011 had no criminal history, representing an astonishing 179% increase from the previous year in arrests of individuals with no criminal record.
The Trump administration’s expansion goals will largely be met via the private prison industry. As part of a 10-year renewable contract with GEO Group, for example, ICE has commissioned a 1,000-bed detention facility outside Houston, at a cost of $110 million and scheduled for completion in late 2018. In addition, a few months ago ICE posted requests to identify locations for privately-operated jails on its web site (though it made no public announcement). Besides southern Texas, the agency is focused on cities far from the U.S.–Mexico border, such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul, and Salt Lake City, another indication of a sustained rise in “interior” arrests, the result of targeting undocumented people who have lived in the U.S. for years or decades.
As new facilities are being built, ICE is turning to county and local jails, paying for detention beds in those locations and creating financial incentives for sheriffs in poorer counties to accept government contracts for the extra funding they bring. This approach often isolates immigrants from qualified legal assistance and friends and family, since such counties are often rural. Moreover, dispersing immigration detention to local and county jails makes it even more difficult to oversee the facilities and maintain basic standards, as will be discussed in the subsequent section.
Call to Action: Contact your senators and House representatives to advocate for a budget that does not include further funding for detention expansion. At the local level, find out if your municipal or county jail has an existing or pending contract with ICE, and mobilize within your community to declare your opposition.
Reduction in Standards and Oversight: The importance of enforced health, safety, and operational standards for detention facilities cannot be overstated. The national detention standards, as they are called, comprise 455 pages of detailed instructions for implementation, and cover everything from the number of toilets required to the provision of medical services to suicide prevention. They exist, first and foremost, to guarantee the health and security of detainees, and save lives.
New jail contracts, however, will only stipulate the need to meet requirements on an 18-page checklist of open-ended and yes/no questions, the same one used by the U.S. Marshals Service to evaluate facilities for criminal defendants; this is a departure from treating those arrested for immigration violations as “civil” detainees. The checklist includes no explanations about what constitutes sufficient compliance, an omission that can allow facilities to interpret directives broadly and non-uniformly, and implicitly encourages inattentive or imprecise assessments. By eliminating the need for comprehensive evaluation and paperwork, the vastly abridged rules are expected to make contracts more appealing to local jails.
Another point of concern is oversight and accountability. The DHS Office of the Inspector General published a report in December documenting a range of health and safety issues at five detention facilities—housing detainees charged with violent and non–violent crimes together, failure to use interpretive services, obstructed or delayed grievances, possible misuse of solitary confinement, potentially unjustifiable strip searches, instances of disrespectful or intimidating treatment, and delayed medical care among other standards violations.
For immigrant and human rights groups, which monitor detention conditions and abuses and often file complaints on behalf of detained individuals, the violations cited, along with many others, are sadly unsurprising. While ICE agreed to the recommendations in the report, the failure of these facilities to afford their occupants basic rights and safety remains an ongoing problem. But the OIG report is a promising development, coming as it does from a government source.
There is wide agreement among the immigrant advocacy community that spot inspections, like the ones conducted by the OIG, are a better method of standards enforcement than the usual scheduled ones which provide advance notice for facilities to conceal sub-standard conditions. Other changes that would improve detention conditions are: (1) providing uniform standards and detainee protections (there are currently three different sets of standards); (2) enforcing meaningful consequences on sub-standard facilities; and (3) conducting thorough inspections using comprehensive assessment tools, not a vague and truncated checklist.
Call to Action: Write and call your congressional representatives to voice your support of spot inspections, more robust detention standards, and greater funding for the Department of Homeland Security OIG in its oversight responsibilities.
Expansion Impact: The flaws and perils for immigrants in our detention system are wide-ranging and recurrent; expanded detention with inadequate oversight would only amplify them. In addition to the sub-standard conditions outlined earlier, negative impacts of detention also include: family separation, lack of access to legal counsel and due process (drastically reducing the chances of a favorable outcome in court), and wrongful and prolonged detention for asylum seekers, a scenario which leaves already traumatized individuals feeling hopeless, and with good reason—one study showed that only 1.5 % of women with children who had passed their credible fear interview were given asylum (TRAC Immigration). It is not unusual for people who endure lengthy detentions to give up on their cases before their scheduled (and re-scheduled) court dates, returning voluntarily to the potential dangers or poverty of their home countries. Long detentions become a coercive means of forcing people to give up their basic rights.
Over time, detention jeopardizes and endangers lives—through poor medical care, compounding traumas of abuse and neglect, and lost optimism, severed family relationships, and accumulated weeks/months/years of incarceration for those detained. More immediately and tragically, people die in detention, often in ways that are related to the poor conditions and oversight of the facilities in which they’re housed. In fiscal 2017, 12 immigrants died in detention, and from September 2016 to August 2017, the GEO-Group-managed, southern California Adelanto facility alone tallied six attempted suicides. Last year, Jean Jimenez-Joseph committed suicide in a Georgia facility, dying the day after a visiting group inquired about his mental health but was turned away. This is where diminished hope, untreated mental illness, and lack of confidence in the system can lead.
Costs and Alternatives: For the KBI and other aid and advocacy groups, the overriding concerns about detention expansion center on humane treatment, human and civil rights, and the dignity of all people. But it is worth critiquing the growth of the detention system from a fiscal-responsibility standpoint as well. In its effort to deport “probably 2 million” undocumented immigrants, as directed by President Trump, ICE spends $226/day to house each detainee, a price both costly and cruel, and any expected economies of expansion would surely be lost by the sheer volume and unprecedented duration of stays.
It is heartbreaking to consider that expanded detention, in the end, is not even as effective a means of organizing the immigration detention system or court appearances as cheaper and more humane alternatives. Government statistics reveal that supervised release programs, for instance, result in a 99% court appearance rate. Methods such as electronic monitoring (ankle bracelets, GPS, etc.), home visits, and telephone follow-ups not only prove highly effective; they cost about $7/day for each person monitored.
Conclusion: For all the reasons outlined, and most especially, in support of migrant rights, the KBI stands in favor of reduced detention, better training of facility staff, sounder oversight practices, and accountability that calls for correcting abuses and improving conditions. In our mission to work toward a more compassionate immigration policy, we advocate and educate to make the current detention system obsolete.
Plans to expand detention include building or renovating facilities far from the southern border to house long-term residents who have made lives in the U.S.