Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

U.S.: Immigration Detainees Shuttled from Jail to Jail

Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, Jun 14 2011 (IPS) - Frequent and long-distance transfers to remote detention facilities are jeopardising the political and human rights of immigrants detained in the United States, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Transferring detainees can force the termination of a client-attorney relationship and separate a detainee from evidence necessary for legal defence.

“Long-distance and repetitive transfers have dire consequences for immigrants’ rights to fair trial proceedings,” said HRW’s report, “A Costly Move: Far and Frequent Transfers Impede Hearings for Immigrant Detainees in the US,” released Tuesday.

The fact that some detained immigrants are held in state or county prisons and jails rather than detention centres also poses a major problem from a human rights perspective.

Statistics reveal the staggering costs, financial and otherwise, to the U.S. government, its taxpayers, and detainees themselves.

HRW estimates that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has spent 366 million dollars on 2.8 million transfers involving 2.2 million non-citizens, as about 40 percent of all detainees are transferred at least once. Legal permanent residents, refugees, and undocumented immigrants constitute the approximately 400,000 people who are detained each year.

The lack of legal and political action to alleviate existing problems is as alarming as the costs of transferring detainees an average of 370 miles, although sometimes as far as 1,642 miles, the group says.

It is a “widespread and very costly and inefficient practice”, Alison Parker, director of the U.S. programme of HRW and author of the report, told IPS.

“Nothing is… in place,” Parker said of ICE’s formal policies and guidelines for detainees.

“We have asked ICE to make reforms to its policies so that immigrants are not transferred away from their attorneys and evidence they need to present to court,” she told IPS.

Despite repeated promises by the agency to implement changes, she added, “Nothing has happened.”

One explanation she cited for the lack of action was a systemic flaw. “ICE has built a detention system that cannot operate without transfers,” Parker explained. “So it is admittedly difficult for the agency to stem the practice.”

The Detention Reform page of ICE’s website, however, claims that its system “reduces transfers” and “maximizes access to counsel”. It also promises, “The agency is engaged in making additional reforms in the near future.”

When asked whether ICE had yet reformed policies to address the problem of transfers frequent or far enough to violate detainees’ rights, Harold Ort, public affairs officer for ICE, told IPS, “We continue to work with local community advocates to address their concerns regarding immigration enforcement in Detroit. Additionally, the ICE internal review is ongoing.”

According to the 2008 ICE Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), when ICE/DRO (formerly Office of Detention and Removal Operations, renamed Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO) decides whether to transfer a detainee, “the determining factor… is whether the transfer is required for operational needs.” Eliminating overcrowding is cited as an example of an operational need.

In contrast to the practices HRW has found are being followed on the ground, the PBNDS promises, “ICE/DRO shall consider alternatives to transfer, especially when the detainee is represented by local, legal counsel.”

Said one detainee in the report who had been transferred from New York to New Mexico: “All my evidence and stuff that I need is right there in New York. I’ve been trying to get all my case information from New York … writing to ICE to get my records. But they won’t give me my records… I’m just representing myself with no evidence to present.”

Similarly, ICE’s standards proclaim that if a transferred detainee has an attorney, that attorney will be notified no later than 24 hours after the transfer has taken place. Yet Holly Cooper, an immigration attorney who has practiced law for over 10 years, told HRW, “Never once have I been notified of [my client’s] transfer. Never.”

The report noted that transfers do not need to cease entirely and are a necessary part of the system. Rather, it stressed that Congress and policymakers need to implement legislative restraints and other guidelines that will prevent a transfer from impinging on detainees’ political and human rights.

Yet lawmakers remain woefully unaware of the plight of immigrant detainees and its financial impact for U.S. taxpayers, the report argued.

Legally, immigrants are constrained and unable to push for legal reform themselves simply because they do not have the right to vote, Parker pointed out. She acknowledged that anti-immigrant sentiment also plays a role in the lack of progress to curb transfers and consequent costs.

Anti-immigrant sentiment “causes, whether it’s lawmakers or certain categories of law enforcement, to have an anti-immigrant approach in their policies and practices, and that certainly contributes to the problems” noted in the report, she said.

A recent legislative example of anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., a country whose identity has long been rooted in serving as a promised land for those in search of a better life, is a bill introduced to the House Judiciary Committee last month by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, called the “Keep Our Communities Safe” Act. It would extend detention period limitations from six months to indefinitely for immigrants the government is unable to deport.

Parker said HRW opposes the bill.

In a press release, Smith stated, “Because of the way current law is written, recent Supreme Court rulings have required dangerous criminal immigrants to be released into our communities… Just because a criminal immigrant cannot be returned to their home country does not mean they should be allowed back on our streets. If dangerous criminal immigrants cannot be deported, they should be detained.”

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