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Obama's Immigration Conundrum

One of the worst messes facing the Obama administration is the disgraceful state of the federal government's immigration detention centers.
 
 
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One of the worst messes facing the Obama administration is the disgraceful state of the federal government's immigration detention centers.

There are 350 of these centers around the country, housing almost 30,000 men, women and even children waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether or not they will be deported. Some have been in custody for years. The centers are overcrowded. Newspapers and academic and civil liberties studies tell of physically and mentally ill inmates being denied help.

Given that they are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, you'd think these people would be suspected terrorists, threats to national security. Many, however, are guilty of nothing except seeking asylum from their native lands. Plenty have been swept up in the increasing number of raids by immigration officers. Some of these are actually here legally but are detained until they can prove it. Others have committed crimes, although some of the violations are so small they would have rated only a light fine or jail sentence in the criminal justice system.

As Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post last year, "Most are working-class men and women or indigent laborers who made mistakes that seem to pose no threat to national security ... " The reporters counted 83 deaths in the last five years among those in detention centers and those who had just left them.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on a Web site devoted to the issue, said: "Within hours of their arrest, many immigrants caught up in raids are transferred to remote out-of-state detention centers and pressured into signing removal orders, often without being able to tell anyone where they are; as a result, family and lawyers have no time or ability to provide support and a legal defense. Inhumane and cruel conditions of confinement in the immigration detention centers are pervasive."

University of Arizona researchers investigated three detention centers in that state, and in a report, "Unseen Children," said mothers are separated from children in the immigration raids. The report also said the facilities did not provide enough care for the physically and mentally ill. It said inmates were denied chances to meet with lawyers or talk to relatives. And the researchers said noncriminal immigration women detainees were mixed with convicted criminals in some facilities.

Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me such mixing "is completely against our policy." Inmates, he said, were permitted to make free phone calls to their countries' consulates "and collect calls to anyone else." Medical care is "excellent," he said, provided by "an array of doctors, mental health professionals and staff."

Recently, however, I met with Ahila Arulanantham and Marisol Orihueta, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. They told me a different story. One of their clients, for example, is Diana Santander (full name: Oscar "Diana" Santander Leyva), a transgender person. The ACLU lawyers gave me copies of the court documents they'd filed on her behalf. Her story illustrates how immigrants can be unjustly locked up for long periods.

In her native Mexico, law enforcement officers treated her brutally because of her sexual status. On one occasion, they forced her to perform oral sex on officers, then burned her thighs with cigars. Another time, police officers attacked her with a knife, beat her with a gun butt and called her a "fucking faggot."

Trying to escape the torture, Santander fled to the United States in 2004, entering illegally. In 2007, she was arrested and convicted of prostitution and trespassing and turned over to federal immigration authorities for deportation. Later, she learned that the brutality inflicted on her by the Mexican cops amounted to torture as defined in the United Nations Convention Against Torture. She applied for asylum.