Women and children being held in immigration detention facilities should be released immediately, a commission recommended Thursday in a new report.
The report also said Congress should reduce its funding for immigration detention in favor of alternatives to detention for illegal immigrants.
The recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights came on the same day that congressional leaders, including Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva, introduced a bill that bans private prisons and ends family detention at immigration facilities.
“Treating detainees as means to a profit margin incentivizes jailers to lobby for ever more inmates, and ensures those inmates are denied even the basic staples they’re entitled to,” Grijalva said in a news release. “The result is a corrections system collapsing under its own weight as the prison industry gets rich and countless men, women and children are ensnared in their trap.”
A 2014 mandate from Congress requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill 34,000 beds with detainees. The government has spent $2.8 billion on detention since 2006, the commission reported, when a bed quota was first implemented.
The bill, dubbed the Justice Is Not for Sale Act, also reinstates the federal parole system, requires ICE to improve monitoring of detention facilities and to use alternatives to detention.
In the lengthy report, the commission related 24 findings including that several immigration detention facilities were not complying with federal mandates and agency policies regarding the treatment of detained immigrants and unaccompanied minors. It also said the government was interfering with detainees’ constitutional rights based on testimony by expert witnesses, independent reports, civil rights organizations, news articles and commission fact-finding visits.
“Immigration detention procedures were never meant to be criminal in nature,” the commission said in the report. However, “immigration detention centers treat and detain undocumented immigrants in a manner inconsistent with protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution.”
Grijalva said the report “makes clear that facilities contracted under DHS’s purview are failing to meet the department’s own standards, as well as federal mandates to ensure detainees are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Some on the commission opposed the approval of the report, citing bias.
“Long before any evidence was gathered, the chairman’s proposal to undertake this study had already concluded that ‘egregious human rights and constitutional violations continue to occur in detention facilities,’” wrote Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego. “Instead of conducting an actual investigation, it structured its initial fact-finding simply to amplify stale rumor and innuendo.” Heriot wrote that no effort was made to establish the veracity of the allegations.
The arrival in 2014 of tens of thousands of Central American children was the impetus for the commission to vote to examine the state of civil rights at immigration centers at the request of its chairman, Martin Castro.
Among its 18 recommendations, it said the government should convene an intergovernmental compliance task force and that the government “work harder to ensure detainees’ access to due process and the right to assistance of counsel under the Fifth Amendment and the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
This summer, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced changes to the detention of families after a visit to the Karnes Family Detention Center in Texas. That included releasing families who establish eligibility for asylum or other immigration relief, and continuous monitoring of the overall conditions at centers housing families.
The commission’s report, “The State of Civil Rights at Immigration Detention Facilities,” encompasses the different agencies involved in the detention of immigrants, adults and children, from Customs and Border Protection to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the unaccompanied minors.
It also reviewed the different facilities ICE uses to house detainees, from private-contracted facilities to those that are government-owned. ICE operates six facilities, which house 13 percent of the detainee population. Another 17 percent are housed in seven contract detention facilities and another 67 percent in detention facilities run by state and local governments. A small percentage, 3 percent, are housed through an arrangement with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Every year, ICE detains more than 400,000 immigrants and asylum seekers housed in different types of facilities to which different standards apply, the commission said. Because they don’t have enforcement mechanism, facilities are not held accountable — at times with tragic results.
About half of all detained immigrants do not have a criminal record, Castro wrote at the end of the report. “Yet, ICE detention system continues to be modeled after the punitive criminal detention system, which contradicts the civil and nonpunitive nature of the immigration detention system.”
This standard, he said, has contributed to the death of more than 138 detainees in ICE custody — including 14 at Eloy Detention Center — and nearly 200 claims of sexual abuse of detainees since 2007.
ICE officials disagreed and said the agency has multiple options and available mechanisms for enforcing compliance with those standards.
Some of the findings echo those reached by Arizona and national groups in the last several years.
The commission documented cases in which guards have verbally abused LGBT detainees and specifically mentioned the Eloy Detention Center, where guards reportedly taunted and humiliated gay men by telling them to “walk like a man, not a gay man.”
Another issue that has repeatedly come up is the lack of language access for detainees, especially non-Spanish speakers.
The commission found ICE’s distribution and content of detainee “know your rights” materials didn’t sufficiently inform all detainees because they are not available in indigenous languages, which concurs with the findings of a report issued this summer by a local consultant.
In 2013, the University of Arizona interviewed 1,113 recent deportees and found that 37 percent of respondents who requested medical attention reported that ICE denied medical attention while in custody.
An ICE official told the commission the agency has taken measures to provide detainees with adequate medical and mental health care, including the implementation of an electronic health record system and its first mental health transitional unit.
Officials from Corrections Corporation of America, one of the two largest companies that run private detention facilities, also told the commission that every facility operates according to the standards that are “essential to protecting the welfare, dignity and rights of the individuals entrusted to (CCA) care.”
“The real scandal in this report is how little firsthand observation of fact or critical analysis has gone into it,” wrote report critic Heriot. “Both detainees and the detention center employees deserve better. So do the taxpayers.”