Human Rights First Forum On Detention Reform

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Laura Griffin is the Program Associate for Access to Justice at LIRS.

On any given day, none of the 33,400 people locked up in immigration detention are being held on criminal charges.

This is a confusing idea, so let me say it again: The hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees held in prisons and prison-like facilities each year are not technically there to be punished. True, many are denied access to sunlight, privacy in the bathroom, and freedom of movement. And yes, some are forced to wear prison uniforms and talk with visitors through a Plexiglas window. Yet none of this is done under the auspices of the criminal justice world. Instead, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) holds people in civil detention for administrative purposes, officially to keep them from fleeing or posing a danger while their immigration status is determined or before they are deported.

The good news? The government recognizes that this is wrong. ICE does not have the legal, moral, or political authority to hold civil detainees, many of whom have never committed a criminal offence, in a penal system.

In 2009, top leaders pledged civil detention reform. This Monday, LIRS attended a panel discussion hosted by Human Rights First (HRF) and Arnold & Porter L.L.P to discuss the next steps. Much of the conversation dwelt on the considerable roadblocks to reform, which you can read about in HRF’s recent report “Jail and Jumpsuits; Transforming the U.S. Detention System- A Two-Year Review”.

What it comes down to is that, despite pledges to the contrary, the system is still penal and that unless we change our thinking it will almost certainly remain so. This was painfully clear listening to the panelists, as the contrast between what was needed and what is possible was reinforced. You can’t house people in jails and call it civil detention, yet half of detention facilities are still literally prisons built to hold convicted criminals.

While it is great that ICE has plans to roll out new detention standards, these nonenforceable guides are going to be almost impossible to fully implement across 250 sprawling, diverse facilities. The standards themselves, while an improvement, are still based upon a penal system. Physical, political, and psychological barriers to a just system persist.

This whole discussion can be a distraction from the real question: Do we need to be detaining 33,400 immigrants a day? Spending a record $2 billion annually on this in the midst of a faltering economy? ICE has the authority to enforce immigration laws and detain immigrants when necessary. But before we take away anyone’s liberty, there needs to be an individualized review of each case to determine the least restrictive means possible. Depending on an individual’s story, a whole host of alternatives to detention may be more appropriate, from ankle bracelets to community supported alternatives to detention or bond.

At LIRS we have stepped forward as a leader, promoting alternatives to detention as a much needed solution. A few months ago we released our report “Unlocking Liberty: a Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy.” This year we launched an effort in partnership with PCUSA to coordinate and fund a network of community supported, case management programs for people released from detention. This will provide a model for what alternatives to detention could look like. Our report articulates our vision, and the community support program demonstrates how it is done. We are proving that there are alternatives to detention which are cheaper, more effective and truly civil in nature.

Towards the end of the event, panelist Ruthie Epstein of Human Rights First said something that stuck with me. It is true, she conceded, that there are countries that have even worse immigration detention records, but this need not mean that we hold the United States to the lowest bar. She chooses, as I hope we all do, to hold our country to the highest standards.

I believe in America. I know that we are dynamic as a country and that we can rethink the current detention system to transform it into something that is both efficient and rooted in our deeply held faith in individual dignity and freedom. Join us in calling for these alternatives at the LIRS Action Center.

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