Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

CORRECTED REPEAT*/RIGHTS-US: Byzantine World of Immigration Detention

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Jul 24 2009 (IPS) - Duarnis Perez, a native of the Dominican Republic, became a U.S. citizen at 15 when his mother was naturalised. But he didn’t know that meant he was also a citizen. He thought he was an illegal immigrant, and so did the authorities.

He was deported and subsequently arrested trying to sneak back into the U.S. from Canada. Perez spent almost five years in prison for unlawful reentry. But when he was released in 2004, an official of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) reviewed his file and told him he had been a citizen all along.

The Perez case is one of a growing chamber of horrors coming under increasing scrutiny by Congress, the courts and civil liberties advocates.

The agency denies that it deports U.S. citizens. “ICE does not detain United States citizens,” an ICE spokesman said in response to media inquiries. He is quoted as saying that agents thoroughly investigate people’s claims of citizenship.

“ICE only processes an individual for removal when all available facts indicate that the person is an alien,” he said.

But Rachel E. Rosenbloom, supervising attorney at Boston College’s Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, cites at least eight cases of wrongly deported citizens and said she believes the number is substantially higher.

While deportation of citizens is relatively rare, there seems little doubt that ICE agents have a long history of abuse. In one case, a German citizen, Majed Chehade, was in the U.S. enroute to visiting his daughter and other family members, who are U.S. citizens.

He was stopped by ICE agents at Las Vegas Airport and taken to a local jail, where he was strip-searched. He was refused medical care and access to his prescription medications. He was allegedly also asked to spy for the government if he wanted to return to the U.S.

Chehade, 64, is the export director of a German manufacturing company and owns a home in Massachusetts.

With the help of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Chehade sued the government and a federal judge rejected the government’s request to have the case dismissed. The judge ruled that strip searches of immigrants arriving in the country, including those housed at local detention facilities, are constitutional only if supported by reasonable suspicion.

The court further held that the action of immigration agents were “extreme and outrageous”. He allowed the inquiry into the legality of the government’s attempt to recruit a foreign national to spy to move forward.

Civil liberties organisations say these are not aberrations or isolated cases. They contend that they show a clear pattern of bureaucratic inefficiency, a lack of respect for the law, and the absence of clear guidelines for immigration officers.

Immigration authorities detain more than 300,000 men, women and children every year in a network of some 400 private facilities and state and local jails. The U.S. contracts with these jails to house approximately 67 percent of all immigrants in detention.

Unlike other federal incarceration systems, there are no binding regulations that govern the conditions in those facilities.

Civil liberties advocates say the immigration detention system has caused an as-yet unknown number of deaths in recent years and subjected thousands of immigrants to inhumane conditions.

A Washington Post investigation concluded that the system was “a hidden world of flawed medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, neglectful guards, ill-trained technicians, sloppy record-keeping, lost medical files and dangerous staff shortages.”

The courts also continue to weigh in on the detention issue. In one recent case, a federal judge cited “persistent and widespread” problems in the federal immigrant detention system, and ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to respond within 30 days to a petition by immigration detainees and civil rights groups that seeks to improve detention conditions at facilities across the country.

Last February, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed Dora Schriro as a special advisor on ICE and detention and removal. The new position was created to focus exclusively on the significant growth in immigration detention over the last five years, and to focus on the arrest priorities at ICE.

In an April letter to Human Rights First, a legal advocacy group, Schriro said she was “dedicating these first months to the close examination of issues impacting detention and removal including arrest priorities, detention decisions and practices, and the utilization of alternatives to detention.”

But rights groups say little has been heard from her since then.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Unfortunately, the federal government has failed to exercise meaningful oversight of immigration detention facilities nationwide. The ACLU regularly receives complaints from immigration detainees whose cries for medical care go unanswered.”

“All too often, the ACLU learns of detainees who have died from both serious diseases such as cancer and mundane conditions such as bacterial infections when earlier intervention could have made a difference,” the group said.

The ACLU has filed a public records request asking the Barack Obama administration to make public changes it is making to a federal immigration enforcement program that allows local police to arrest and process illegal immigrants.

And Amnesty International (AI) has recommended that “Detention should only be used in extraordinary circumstances, be justified in each individual case and be subject to judicial review.”

Nevertheless, AI says that in the U.S., immigrants can be detained for months or years without a judicial warrant.

The detention and deportation issue is further complicated by immigration judges, many of who were political appointees during the George W. Bush administration and who have little or no experience in immigration law.

Most immigrants who appeal their cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals can not afford lawyers, though reliable data concludes that legal representation significantly increases their chances of winning, especially in cases where the immigrant is seeking asylum in the U.S.

Addressing that issue, Attorney General Eric Holder has recently reversed a Bush-era order that said immigrants facing deportation do not have an automatic right to an effective lawyer. He said the government would appoint lawyers for immigrants contesting their deportation.

Meanwhile, ICE practices have also attracted the attention of Congress. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat – and the first woman of Mexican ancestry to be elected to the U.S. Congress – has introduced legislation to “help to ensure that detainees, especially unaccompanied children, are treated humanely, receive access to legal representation and obtain needed medical care.”

Some civil liberties advocates see some modest glimmers of progress.

Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois, told IPS, “It is extremely difficult to defend the basic human rights of undocumented aliens here in the United States. But there has been an amelioration of the mass raids of undocumented workers that Bush engaged in. Also, they have begun to put more pressure on employers, who are hiring these people illegally.”

He added, “Obama should have reversed the Bush policy of giving local law enforcement agencies the power to police immigration law – something they are not qualified to do, which leads to racial profiling specifically against Latinos, and is counter-productive to ordinary policing of the community. But the Obama policies are certainly an advance for human rights over the racist, exploitative and near-totalitarian Bush policies.”

*Replaces the story moved on Jul. 22, 2009.

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