By Annie Sovcik
Human Rights First's Refugee Protection Program
Recent developments signal that real reform of the immigration detention system may finally be on the horizon. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its plan to overhaul the nation's flawed immigration detention system. In the past week alone, two bills designed to enhance due process protections and ensure humane treatment for asylum seekers and other detained immigrants were introduced in the Senate. Perhaps this combination of administrative attention and Congressional action will create the political space necessary to move forward on meaningful reforms - changes that not only improve the conditions of confinement, but also include reform of policies and processes governing decisions to detain, parole and release individuals from immigration detention.
The U.S. immigration detention system is comprised of a vast network of federal, state, local and private prisons. Since 2002, the number of immigrants detained each year has more than doubled - with an increase from 202,000 in 2002 to an estimated population of over 440,000 in 2009. The average daily detained population has grown from 20,662 in 2002 to 33,400 in 2009. As this network has grown, problems of poor conditions, inadequate medical care, difficulty accessing legal counsel, or receiving religious services have also worsened.
Of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually who find themselves caught up in this system - all for civil immigration violations - a few thousand are asylum seekers, individuals who come here to ask for protection from persecution. In an April 2009 report, U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, Human Rights First found that the United States is regularly detaining asylum seekers in "penal" facilities. They are forced to wear prison uniforms and are regularly handcuffed and sometimes shacked as they are transported. Under current regulations, these asylum seekers are not given access to immigration court custody hearings, a safeguard afforded most other immigrant detainees. Because of the lack of adequate due process safeguards, asylum seekers often linger in these facilities for months or years as their cases are adjudicated.
Attention to this issue is long overdue. Let's hope these recent developments really do signify that reform of the detention system is finally ripe for action.
See link to a Human Rights First fact sheet on the Protect Citizens from Unlawful Detention Act (S. 1549) and its impact on asylum seekers
See link to the DHS fact sheet on the 2009 Immigration Overhaul