Under Obama, Like Bush, Immigrant Suspects Face Injustice

In January 2007, two immigrant advocacy groups and two former immigration detainees petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to take a simple but important step. They asked it to establish legally enforceable standards for the detention system, a fast-growing network of federal centers, county jails and private prisons that has been plagued by medical neglect and abuse.


The petition was ignored, even after reports of several preventable deaths. This was typical for the Bush administration, whose war on illegal immigration was notable for its slipshod cruelty. After waiting more than a year, the advocates sued.

More time passed. So did the Bush administration. On Jan. 21, the day after President Obama was inaugurated, Homeland Security told the court it couldn’t meet a deadline set for that month to respond to the petition, or commit to a date by which it would reply. Neither Mr. Obama nor his new secretary of homeland security has since responded or announced any change of policy.

On June 25, a federal district judge in Manhattan declared that the now two-and-a-half-year delay in answering the petition was “unreasonable as a matter of law,” and ordered the department to respond within 30 days. The judge, Denny Chin, took note of the plaintiffs’ assertion that “detainees in D.H.S. custody are dying as a result of the substandard conditions.” He called the department’s continued silence “egregious.”

The Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, had earlier announced plans for a comprehensive review of the detention system and other messes left by President Bush. But little has changed, and it has been left to federal judges to correct abuses as they can.

Last month, a judge in New Haven halted the deportations of four immigrant men who had been seized in a blatantly unconstitutional raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who stormed a house without permission, warrant or evidence. I.C.E. had refused to let its agents be cross-examined in the court.

Immigrant advocates greeted the election of President Obama as a chance to finally bring moderation and accountability to a rogue, unresponsive immigration system. In late June, advocates celebrated Mr. Obama’s pledge to solve the immigration mess once and for all, maybe with a bill this year.

But a lot of suffering needs to be undone right now. The administration’s promises would be more convincing if it finally fixed the corrupted detention system.

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