12/18/2014 06:32 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Upholding American Values: Reforming U.S. Immigration Detention

Earlier this week, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inaugurated the largest detention facility in the U.S. This center, located in Texas, will hold 2,400 migrants who have crossed the border. It is especially designed to house women and their children, from babies to teenagers, as their deportation hearings move through the legal system. Opening this detention facility was another step toward implementing President Obama's recently announced, and fiercely debated, immigration measures. And it represents yet another chapter in the tragic saga of immigration detention in the U.S.

In 2011, DHS held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants. The US, through DHS and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm, operates a system of over 250 immigration detention facilities, costing taxpayers over $2 billion annually. There is at least one such facility in 48 of the 50 states. According to Human Rights Watch, "Each year, the US holds more than 400,000 immigrants in a far-flung network of detention facilities, not as punishment for criminal offenses but for civil immigration violations." On any given day, roughly 34,000 people are held in immigration detention centers across the country because of 2007 Congressional appropriations legislation associated with the ICE budget, stating that "funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds." This is interpreted by ICE as a requirement to keep and fill those 34,000 beds. No other law enforcement agency is subject to a statutory quota on the number of individuals to hold in detention.

The current detention system is intended to hold only those unauthorized immigrants who pose a public security threat as they await immigration hearings. However, the majority of people detained have been deemed by ICE as low-risk, meaning that they have little or no prior criminal history. According to Amnesty International, detained immigrants include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, families with children, lawful permanent residents and parents of U.S. citizens. In facilities known as family detention centers, mothers and children are held out of fear that they would otherwise miss their legal hearings. Immigrants can be detained for months or years without any meaningful judicial review.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. immigration detention system is rife with human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch has documented poor health care, physical and sexual abuse, problematic living conditions and inadequate legal representation. In a 2009 report on the U.S. immigration detention system, Amnesty International documented "pervasive problems with conditions of detention, such as commingling of immigration detainees with individuals convicted of criminal offenses; inappropriate and excessive use of restraints; inadequate access to healthcare, including mental health services; and inadequate access to exercise." Family detention violates international agreements such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers.

Some immigration detention facilities are particularly notorious.

In Georgia, at the Stewart detention facility, interviews with detained immigrants revealed maggots in food, poor medical care, unsafe temperatures and, in many cases, detainees unable to communicate with staff members because of the lack of translators on site. In one case, a disabled veteran of the U.S. war in Iraq went three and a half weeks without showering because of lack of assistance.

In Texas, at the Karnes County Residential Center, there have been numerous allegations of sexual abuse. Women there have claimed that staff pressured them into sex in exchange for money, assistance with their immigration cases, and shelter if they are released. Women inmates have also alleged that staff have fondled them in front of other inmates, including children.

At the Don Hutto Correction Center in Texas, eight-month old children wore prison uniforms and lived and slept in locked prison cells with open-air toilets before the ICE settled a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result of this settlement, several egregious conditions were addressed, including allowing children over the age of 12 to move freely about the facility, providing an on-site pediatrician and eliminating a count system that forced families to stay in their cells 12 hours per day.

In addition to human rights concerns associated with immigration detention, multiple studies indicate that detention poses a serious threat to the psychological health of detained immigrants. It also aggravates isolation, depression and mental health problems associated with past traumas they have experienced.

Incarcerating immigrants in detention facilities - a "lock 'em up" approach - contravenes human rights norms and runs contrary to our fundamental values of due process, fairness and liberty. Most detainees are not criminals, and many are individuals fleeing conflict and violence. Mass detention of migrants and immigrants tarnishes the U.S.'s standing and ability to persuade other governments to honor their human rights obligations. The United Nations has stated that immigration detention should "gradually be abolished" and, when used, be strictly as a last resort.

There is much that needs to be done to improve the conditions of detained immigrants. We can begin with two concrete actions. One step would be to revoke the 34,000 immigration detention bed quota imposed by Congress. Another would be to shut down ICE-operated family detention centers where women and children, including babies, are imprisoned.

In President Obama's recent speech announcing immigration reform, he declared that the issue of whether to deport people was "about who we are as a country and who we want to be for future generations." How we treat detained immigrants says just as much about who we are. As a nation of immigrants, being true to the American spirit means ending mass immigration detention.