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Restoring Accountability to U.S. Immigration Enforcement

New America Media, Commentary, Jacqueline Esposito and Jumana Musa Posted: Apr 14, 2009

Editors Note: In response to the civil rights abuses being documented under the governments immigration enforcement programs, the National Week of Action (April 8 to 15) spotlights the need for greater accountability at the Department of Homeland Security, write Jacqueline Esposito of Detention Watch Network and Jumana Musa of the Rights Working Group. Immigration Matters regularly features the views of immigration experts and advocates.

This year, more than 440,000 people will be held in immigration detention. There is a common misperception surrounding those who are held in immigration custody. The reality is that the United States government detains women, children, the elderly, asylum seekers, victims of torture, long-time lawful permanent residents and, in far too many instances, American citizens.

These detainees are held for months, or even years, while they await a final determination on their immigration status. Frequently, individuals are detained without a judicial hearing, or even access to an attorney. Because the government has ruled that immigrants in removal proceedings have no Sixth Amendment right to counsel --under the theory that immigration law is civil in nature while the Sixth Amendment applies to criminal proceedings -- more than 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented by a lawyer. In a nation that prides itself on the rule of law and due process protections, this is a startling and disturbing fact.

The skyrocketing use of detention has led to rampant human rights abuses. According to the governments own reports, detained immigrants are frequently denied medical care, visitation by family and friends, access to counsel, and even telephones. Since 2003 alone, there have been 91 reported deaths of individuals held in immigration detention.

One example of the abhorrent conditions immigrants face in detention occurred last November, when over the course of 10 days, Guido Newbrough made repeated requests for medical attention from his Virginia jailers for a treatable bacterial infection that was devastating his heart. His increasingly desperate pleas went unanswered. Instead, he was locked in an isolation cell for his complaints. Newbrough died several days later. Born in Germany, he had lived in the United States for 42 of his 48 years.

The problems with U.S. immigration enforcement policy are not limited to substandard detention conditions. While the Department of Homeland Security pledges to protect public safety, the government has pursued far less strategic targets by relying upon indiscriminate enforcement actions, such as raids in homes and worksites, and traffic stops where the vast majority of individuals apprehended pose absolutely no risk to the public.

The governments use of catch-all enforcement actions comes at a great cost. In recent weeks, we have seen widespread reports of racial profiling and civil rights violations against communities of color. According to a Pew Hispanic Center survey of more than 2,000 people, almost one in 10 Hispanic adults born in the United States said they had been stopped by law enforcement and questioned about their immigration status in 2007.

The current enforcement policy is not only eroding public trust in law enforcement. The government, in an effort to meet arrest and deportation quotas, is also diverting resources away from issues of national concern like the investigation of human trafficking and weapons smuggling rings. Instead, it is focusing on the apprehension of far easier and less dangerous targets, like undocumented workers or long-term permanent lawful residents with years-old and often minor criminal convictions. These enforcement practices are overwhelming an already crippled detention system and are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

In response to the mounting number of civil rights abuses being documented under the governments immigration enforcement programs, Detention Watch Network and the Rights Working Group, two coalitions with more than 400 organizational members across the country, launched a National Week of Action (April 8 to 15) spotlighting the need for greater accountability at the Department of Homeland Security.

Advocacy groups in more than 25 states have held vigils, attended meetings with elected officials, and organized educational events to demand that due process and fundamental human rights be respected in immigration enforcement practices and the immigration detention system.

As part of the National Week of Action, our organizations are advancing a series of recommendations to Congress and the administration calling for the elimination of wasteful government spending on untargeted and indiscriminate enforcement actions and the arbitrary use of detention. These recommendations are aimed at redirecting resources to focus strategically on serious enforcement concerns that promote public safety while upholding human rights.

As the country moves forward on comprehensive immigration reform, we must uphold American values by ensuring that all people, no matter where they come from, are afforded fundamental rights, including the right to a fair day in court before being deprived of liberty and the right to be free from inhumane conditions of confinement. As a nation, we cannot stand for anything less.


Formed in the aftermath of 9/11, the Rights Working Group is a coalition of more than 250 community-based grassroots groups and national organizations working to restore civil liberties and human rights protections for all people living in the U.S. For more information on the Rights Working Group, visit www.rightsworkinggroup.org.

The Detention Watch Network is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system and the need for humane reform. For more information on Detention Watch Network, visit www.detentionwatchnetwork.org.

Related Articles:

The Medical Crisis in Immigration Detention

Immigrant Rights Signed Away?

A Letter From Immigration Detention

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