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.


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