THE BLOG
07/22/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

Who Is Overseeing Immigration Detention?

Janet Napolitano recently announced that she is resigning from her position as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Her announcement came less than a month after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton declared his resignation. With no leadership at the top of these agencies tasked with managing immigration detention, who is overseeing the 34,000 men and women held in immigration detention each day?

The current model of oversight does not effectively prevent human and civil rights abuses in immigration detention. Although ICE contracts with a vast network of private prisons and county jails, ICE does not enforce any unifying operation standards for these contracted facilities. Even ICE's Performance-Based National Detention Standards are merely internal agency policy and do not carry the force of law. Additionally, only ICE monitors compliance with these standards, without third-party oversight.

The immigration bill passed by the Senate would help enforce nationwide detention standards. The bill would prohibit immigration authorities from contracting with a facility unless it complies with ICE's detention standards and would impose financial penalties on facilities that violate the standards. However, the bill could be stronger if it provided for non-governmental oversight of the facilities.

The lack of independent review is compounded by the dearth of immigration-related training programs for staff at ICE-contracted facilities. Currently, ICE does not offer a standardized training program for immigration detention facility staff. Therefore, staff training varies dramatically from one facility to the next, with many facility officers receiving no specialized training on immigration policies and how to work with victims of torture and persecution, battered immigrants, trafficked persons, and others needing special attention.

Community leaders in California are addressing this situation with an initial officer training at the Santa Ana City Jail, which is slated for national implementation in the coming year. Approximately 100 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border sits the Santa Ana City Jail, where ICE detains up to 64 gay and transgender immigrants in what ICE deems the first and only "dedicated protective custody unit for gay and transgender immigrants." According to ICE's contract with the jail, which CIVIC obtained in November 2012 through an informal request, staff at the Santa Ana City Jail should receive "8 hours of specialized training" on LGBT issues. However, until this past week, officers currently working in this unit had not received these eight hours of specialized training.

I first became aware of this lack of training last November on a tour of the Santa Ana City Jail initiated by CIVIC. During the tour, our group interviewed 14 gay and transgender people in immigration detention. Transgender asylum seekers who self-identify as females reported being told by guards to "use their male voice" and "act male" on an almost daily basis. We were informed that many guards, although not all, would use male pronouns to refer to transgender women.

Although this detention unit is for gay and transgender immigrants only, "officers at the jail clearly lacked sophistication in notions of identity for trans women," said Karen Vance, a mother of a transgender son and a participant in CIVIC's November tour. "The basic understanding that trans women truly are women is lacking. Eight hours of training should be the minimum amount of time these officers spend learning about LGBT issues."

Medical and mental health care was a particular concern for the people in immigration detention with whom we spoke. ICE's PBNDS 4.3 explains, "Transgender detainees who were already receiving hormone therapy when taken into ICE custody shall have continued access." According to the Santa Ana City Jail, the jail will not accept a person from ICE unless that person has five days of medicine available. This is contrary to what CIVIC learned during interviews with asylum seekers who shared that when they were transferred from another facility, their medical records trailed behind 35 to 45 days, thereby delaying medication by anywhere between one to four months.

After this tour, CIVIC made four recommendations to ICE: First, each officer working in the protective custody unit should receive a full eight hours of specialized training; second, ICE should improve its medical and mental health care to ensure the seamless transfer of medical records when a person is transferred or initially taken into ICE custody; third, approve a CIVIC-affiliated community visitation program to end the isolation of people in detention and provide a form of community monitoring of the jail; and fourth, allow independent non-governmental advisers to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the protective custody unit.

Since November, ICE has welcomed a CIVIC-affiliated visitation program, Friends of Orange County Detainees. Volunteers with the program have reported continued misuse of gender pronouns and at least one instance of delayed medication as well as increasing use of arbitrary lockups for as little as removing one's bed sheet or dancing.

"I am concerned that officers do not understand that immigration detention is not meant to be penal," said Jan Meslin, coordinator of Friends of Orange County Detainees and a participant in CIVIC's November tour. "One officer recently told me, 'Don't forget these are all criminals.' That's just not true. If they did commit a crime, they served out the sentence, got turned over to ICE, and are now in jail for the civil offense of not having proper documentation. They in fact have lost all of the rights a 'criminal' has in our justice system."

This past week's training for officers and staff at Santa Ana City Jail tackled these and other concerns. The training, titled "Working Effectively with GBT Detainees," was developed by California State University at Fullerton, and I participated on a panel with representatives from the Public Law Center, Van Ness Recovery House, The Center Orange County, Children's Hospital of Orange County, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and Shift Happens. Although a step in the right direction, ICE limited the training to a total of only four hours, far below the contracted for eight hours of specialized training.

On a local level, CIVIC calls on ICE to honor its contract with the Santa Ana City Jail and provide detention staff with the full eight-hour training. On a national level, we hope to see the immigration reform bill incorporate a strong system of independent oversight and a training requirement for detention facility officers. In the meantime, through weekly visits, CIVIC and Friends of Orange County Detainees will continue to monitor the treatment of people at the Santa Ana City Jail.