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Anita Sinha Headshot

Immigration Reform Is at a Standstill but There's Still Work to Be Done

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Comprehensive immigration reform may be the most ill-fated three words on Capitol Hill. The Senate passed a bill last summer, and depending on the week the issue on the House side is either dead on arrival or may see the light of day. While there has yet to be a bill from the House, earlier this month the GOP released its "Immigration Reform Principles." This one-page document starts with the principle that "border security and interior enforcement must come first," and ends with the statement that "none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented." Despite the fact that President Obama continues to deport non-citizens at a record-breaking pace -- nearing two million deportations since he took office -- lawmakers from the reluctant to obstructionist continue to emphasize the border and enforcement, with some even saying that they don't trust the President to enforce immigration laws.

Meanwhile, the U.S. immigration system continues to be a broken system that needs to be fixed. This tragic fact was brought to light last week at a briefing on legislation introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer requiring that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implement standards for short-term custody of individuals held in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. These facilities are intended to hold individuals apprehended by CBP for less than 72 hours. If DHS determines that the individual must be transferred to a detention facility for a longer amount of time, the Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transports the detainee to a facility designed for longer term detention.

Senator Boxer's bill has a relatively modest goal: to have public, enforceable standards that govern the conditions and procedures in CBP facilities. The Women's Refugee Commission testified about the inhumane conditions of these border facilities and the impact of not holding CBP accountable for upholding basic rights. And a former detainee of a Texas CBP facility and client of American University's Immigrant Justice Clinic, who I will refer to here as "Samuel," told a packed room about his experience.

Samuel crossed the U.S. border from El Salvador to flee persecution. He was 16 years old at the time. Samuel eventually got asylum to stay here in the U.S., and is now waiting for his green card. But when he crossed the border, he was apprehended by CBP. Samuel testified at the briefing that he was put into a vehicle that looked like an animal control van, with no windows and a cage in the back where he and others were piled on top of each other. He testified that they were like that for the hour-long drive to the facility, and that he felt like he was going to die from suffocation.

Once he arrived, Samuel found out why CBP holding facilities are called "hieleras," which means ice box in Spanish. He was put into a freezing, filthy, windowless cell with steel walls. Samuel was locked up with five others in a cell with one exposed toilet and one slab of concrete that was supposed to be a bed. They were each given one tiny frozen burrito, were never given water and had to hug each other throughout the night to keep warm.

Samuel, relatively speaking, was lucky. Because he was a minor, he was transferred to a juvenile facility the next day. Another former CBP detainee who spoke at the Senate briefing, Alba who is represented pro bono by Americans for Immigrant Justice, was not as lucky -- she was held for 15 days, enduring treatment ranging from threats of sexual violence to not being able to shower for the entire time.

Samuel concluded his testimony by telling the room of Congressional staffers that he is speaking on behalf of those who didn't get a chance to tell their story of mistreatment at the border. He described an environment with no rules, which is exactly what this one piece of legislation is trying to fix. Putting aside the comprehensive immigration reform gridlock, we should at least expect Congress to legislate basic fixes to a broken system.