Caught in the Desperation of Immigration Detention Centers

For two years, immigration advocates petitioned the federal government to institute legally enforceable standards for the nation's 300 detention centers, where immigrants facing deportation suffer from substandard medical care and deprivations of due process -- cloaked by secrecy that shrouds much of the immigration system and the centers in particular. The George W. Bush administration, true to form, shrugged off those appeals. Then, in June, a federal judge ordered the Obama administration to respond to the petition. It did, but its approach so far is every bit as unacceptable as its predecessor's refusals. According to the Obama administration, the present system ensures quality control, and imposing legally binding standards on the centers would be overly burdensome. The first assertion is false. The second is shameful.

In Basile, La., detainees know well the consequences of Obama's indifference to their difficulties. More than 100 have filed complaints detailing violations that range from humiliating to bizarre. Detainees said they received two days' worth of toilet paper to last a month; they live in rat- and spider-infested cells; they lack medicine for serious illnesses, such as leukemia. They also claim they're denied access to lawyers and subjected to midnight disciplinary "trials" run by the center's staff. Desperate for help from Washington, detainees recently began their fifth hunger strike.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement inspections have found satisfactory conditions at the center, and the private company that runs it disputes allegations of mistreatment. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, responding to the detainees' latest hunger strike and complaints from civil liberties groups, dispatched a top official to meet the strikers and has already begun a reform of the system. Those mixed signals only reinforce the sense that the detention centers are not governed by clear standards or subjected to thoughtful oversight.

More than 30,000 immigrants are in custody today, up from 6,200 in 1992. As the numbers grow, they amplify the suffering of those thrown into this dark and secret system. Obama's reluctance to institute legal standards for immigrant detention centers undermines the legitimacy of his administration's defense of civil liberties elsewhere and cries out for prompt redress.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.