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Reforming Immigration Detention: Change We Want To Believe In

A year ago today, the Obama administration promised a radical overhaul of the nation’s immigration detention system in response to a wave of reports revealing widespread and egregious violations of the basic rights of detained immigrants. Changes to date have been too slow and tinker only at the edges of the problem. Worse, the pipeline to immigration detention is growing: the Obama administration has lifted deportations to historic highs. This ensures that hundreds of thousands of immigrants will face months, and sometimes years, of detention in remote parts of the country and miles from loved ones. This is not the change we had hoped for.


To be sure, the immigrant detention system in this country was broken long before the Obama administration. However, his administration has not done enough to ameliorate the abuses suffered by immigrants placed in this sprawling system, which spans across the country and houses nearly 400,000 immigrants each year. These immigrants areroutinely denied access to their lawyers or loved ones, and often restricted from seeing the light of day. Furthermore, in the past year, journalists have uncovered horrific accounts of medical negligence and sexual abuse in this system, sometimes in the very detention centers the Obama administration has attempted to improve. This is not what a reformed system looks like.

It’s time to reform the immigrant detention system as we have come to know it, and look for solutions that are humane, economically sound, and in line with our constitutional values. Washington has the power to create a civil system by following two simple steps:

  1. Make the use of alternatives to detention commonplace, rather than a rarity.The Obama administration has rightly signaled that the detention system must be transformed into a truly “civil” system. Yet, the administration has failed to turn the system into to one that always asks first whether an individual can remain in their community rather than being shipped off to a detention facility miles, or often states, away from their homes. The vast majority of immigrants detained in this system are not flight risks—they are fighting for their right to remain in the United States with their loved ones— yet they are treated as such.
  2. Create a set of legally enforceable standards for detention. Currently, detention facilities face no real penalty for denying their detainees their most basic rights, like access to the outdoors or a law library. Without giving detention standards the legal teeth they need, those running the prisons will feel no real pressure to ensure that the rights of their detainees are not routinely violated.

The administration tried to duck the need for legally enforceable standards, touting their review system as sufficient to monitor and correct the activities of their detention facilities. This review system has long since failed to protect the basic rights of immigrants—just ask the victims of sexual abuse at the Hutto Detention Facility in Texas, or detainees in Basile, Louisiana, who suffered such horrific conditions that they staged a hunger strike in order to make their voices heard.

To be fair, the Obama administration has taken a few critical steps toward improving conditions for detainees. Last month, ICE implemented the first-ever electronic detainee locator system to allow people to find their loved ones in the immigration detention maze. If the system works, the days where a wife can’t find her husband in the labyrinth of the detention system should be a thing of the past. We should expect no less.

The administration must not let another year pass before making good on its promise of real reform. It is cold comfort to ask the actual immigrants being detained—or their families— to wait for reform. Tell that to the child missing her father, the husband missing his wife, or the man whose cancer goes untreated while in detention.

Creating a system that protects these civil detainees from egregious abuse wouldn’t require a major legislative effort, nor would it be costly for the taxpayer. These common-sense changes to the immigrant detention system have been proposed by Congress, and the administration could easily enact some of these changes without legislation. The time has come for real accountability—Washington must act to codify legally enforceable standards to protect the basic human rights of the men and women in its care.

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