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Debating Immigration Detention Reform

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During Wednesday night's presidential debate in Denver, candidates will undoubtedly face a number of questions about immigration. It will be no surprise if these questions concern comprehensive immigration reform, local law enforcement of federal immigration laws or the Obama Administration's decision to defer the deportation of some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But the candidates should face questioning about detention practices nearby at the Denver Contract Detention Facility and at other jails and jail-like facilities across the nation that are used for immigration detention by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement.

The Denver Contract Detention Facility holds several hundred immigration detainees at any given time -- thousands annually. They are among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers detained last year in detention facilities across the nation at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion. If that price tag alone doesn't warrant a question from moderator Jim Lehrer, perhaps the reality of what's happening at facilities should.

These issues have been well-documented by groups like Human Rights First. More recently, a coalition of 22 prominent human rights organizations and individuals, who came together to issue "10 Critical Human Rights Challenges for the next American President," called for reform. That document rightly noted that "despite its leadership in protecting refugees around the world and its history as a nation of immigrants, the United States has failed, in a number of ways, to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants."

Just last month the Obama Administration reported that it had detained almost 430,000 people in immigration detention in the United States last year, an all-time high for our nation. These immigrants and asylum seekers are often detained without individual assessments or prompt court review of detention, and then they are housed in jails and facilities that are inappropriately jail-like, as confirmed by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. This isn't a partisan issue. The use of immigration detention rose steeply throughout the Bush administration as well. It's time for both parties, and for these candidates, to take this issue on.

In these tough economic times, $2 billion is a hefty price tag, especially when more cost-effective alternatives exist that can be used in ways that are consistent with maintaining public safety. As documented by Human Rights First in its report "Jails and Jumpsuits," alternatives to detention -- which can include a range of monitoring mechanisms, case-management, and in some cases electronic monitoring - can save more than $100 per day per immigration detainee -- millions annually. These kinds of alternatives have been used effectively in the criminal justice system for years. In fact, at an event held last week by Human Rights First at the University of California at Irvine, one county official explained that his county alone had saved $26 million dollars using a pre-trial alternative services program.

Immigration officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations have pointed the finger at Congress, which has appropriated funding for more than 33,000 immigration detention beds and passed mandatory detention laws for broad categories of asylum seekers and immigrants. Yet few political leaders have been willing to publicly champion the use of cost-effective alternatives to immigration detention or to criticize immigration detention policies that are inconsistent with this country's human rights commitments.

Wednesday night, both presidential candidates will have the opportunity to do just that and to map out a plan to reform the flawed immigration detention system. Here are some promises we'll be listening for the candidates to make:

  • Provide prompt immigration court hearings to assess the need for detention in each individual case, and work with Congress to revise laws that attempt to eliminate individualized assessments of the need for detention;
  • Use cost-effective alternatives to detention in cases for individuals who pose no public risk but need additional monitoring or supervision, and support reallocation of funds from unnecessary detention to alternatives;
  • Cease the use of jails and jail-like facilities for immigration detention, only utilizing facilities with less penal conditions; and
  • Increase access to mental health and medical care, prohibit solitary confinement, and end the detention of children.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. In the words of the poet Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty, our nation is the "Mother of Exiles" who lifts her beacon to welcome those who "yearn to breathe free." It's shocking that those who flee to this country seeking protection from persecution, as well as many other immigrants seeking better lives, are often welcomed to this great nation with shackles and prison uniforms. The candidates should make clear that those policies are out of step with American values.

This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.