Undocumented Immigrants Face Abuses, Un-American Treatment in Detention

It really shouldn't matter what one's opinion about the larger immigration question is -- these are basic issues of human rights.

Last Monday, my pleasant sunny morning with no symptoms of seasonal allergies came to an end when I started reading the disturbing article by Nina Bernstein, "Few Details on Immigrants Who Died in Custody". The article narrates the death of Boubacar Bah in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2007. Mr. Bah was an immigrant from Guinea that worked as a tailor in New York and was detained by ICE and imprisoned in New Jersey. Mr. Bah had overstayed his tourist visa, but had applied to legalize his immigration status. He was told by Immigration Services that he could leave the country while his case was processed so he traveled to his home country to visit his family. Upon his returned, he was arrested in Kennedy Airport as he was told that his case was denied.

While detained, Mr. Bah had fallen and fractured his skull. Although seriously injured, he was shackled and taken to solitary confinement. In a written report, the detention center staff stated that he was unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. Mr. Bah was left in this condition for almost 15 hours until finally an ambulance was called. The hospital reported that he had multiple brain hemorrhages; he died after four months in a coma. Mr. Bah's family and his attorney were not notified by ICE of the occurrence; the family found out five days later thanks another detainee who called Mr. Bah's roommate.

I'm not going to lie, reading this article got a couple of tears out of me. And then I questioned myself, is this the way that Americans want the immigration issue to be resolved? Do these actions represent the values of this country? I mean I was not that surprised. After all, Americans are well aware of the cruelty and numerous human rights violations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, all in the name of fighting terror. But yet, I couldn't let my question of values go away. Because the secrecy, denial of basic human and civil rights, and inhumanity involved in the treatment of immigrant detainees doesn't align with American values. Disappointingly, once again I had to acknowledge that we are far from living on the promise of this country. We are not who we think we are.

Terrorizing the immigrant community and denying them basic human and civil rights doesn't benefit the immigrant community and the country at large. As Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." But who does benefit? The prison industry does. Corrections Corporation of Americahas been contracted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to run immigrant detention centers across the country. In 2005, CCA's revenue jumped 21% from the prior year, to $95 million.

We are not going to solve the complexities of immigration and our immigration system by having the federal and local governments creating fear and persecuting immigrants. We need comprehensive immigration reform that embraces our values as a nation and strengthens and expands our middle class. But more urgently, the government should transform the immigrant detention system into a body that abides by human rights standards and the American values of transparency and fairness.
Cristina is an Immigration Policy intern at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.
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