Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rep. Jared Polis: The Case for Detention Reform

Rep. Jared Polis: The Case for Detention Reform
Sept 15, 2009

For the inaugural edition of the Denver Huffington Post, I thought I'd
write about an issue that is close to my heart -- reforming our nation's
immigration detention facilities, which hold tens of thousands of immigrants who
were mostly picked up for trivial offenses like speeding or loitering and are
now in detention at taxpayer expense for months or even years.

Imagine that one day you are home with your family, and the next day your
kids return from school to find that you've been placed for an indefinite period
in a detention facility with limited visitation rights.

The need for comprehensive immigration reform is felt by Americans in
Colorado and across the nation, but few are aware of the high cost, deplorable
conditions, and general failure that is our detention system. In this blog I
hope to shine some light on what is becoming an increasingly costly
embarrassment to our nation and an affront to our American values.
Just last
week, I met with the National Day Laborers' Organizing Network (NDLON), their
Colorado affiliate organization, Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores, and
the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, who have been working on
detention reform. During our meeting, we talked about abysmal conditions at the
Basile detention facility in Louisiana, where dozens of immigrants were denied
basic access to basic sanitation and medical assistance. Enduring humiliation
and further abuse, hundreds of detainees participated in a series of hunger
strikes demanding to be treated with dignity and afforded their basic human
Sadly, the stories of abuse, malnutrition and lack of basic health
care are altogether too common in detention facilities. The experience of New
Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice resonated deeply with similar groups
in Colorado, seeking to support those who are struggling to gain access to basic
medical assistance or regular meals.
This summer, I toured a GEO detention
facility in Aurora, where I met some of the thirty thousand immigrants
throughout the country being held in detention facilities due to an immigration
violation. They are children, pregnant women, asylum-seekers, victims of human
trafficking, survivors of torture and other vulnerable individuals. Some are
undocumented, but many were not and are simply "waiting" for a decision of an
immigration court.
Currently there are 400 facilities being used to house
immigrants in detention at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion. Depending
on the facility, the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $99 per day. Here
in Colorado, it costs over $133 dollars a day to detain an immigrant at the GEO
Detention Facility in Aurora. Given the absurd amount of money the government is
spending on immigrant detention facilities, it is all the more ludicrous
considering that most of the immigrants being held in detention pose no threat
to our community. These individuals are not criminals and have no place in
detention centers.
Even more disturbing is the alarming number of deaths in
detention. Since 2003, Immigration and Customs Enforcement claims there have
been at least 104 deaths in immigration detention. Many of these deaths have
been caused by a lack of timely and thorough medical care and nearly one fifth
of them have been suicides. Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
owns and operates select detention centers, the government also "buys" bed space
from private facilities such as the GEO in Aurora and over 312 county and city
prisons nationwide. These for-profit contractors are not directly supervised by
DHS staff, creating a lack of communication and a gross lack of accountability.
Consequently, individuals have routinely experienced egregious conditions of
confinement, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding and discrimination. For a
hundred dollars per day, the amount of money taxpayers are spending on
detention, we could afford to house immigrants at hotels across the country, but
instead we place them under dangerous conditions where they are denied basic
human rights.
Thankfully, effective alternatives to detention are readily
available. Systems that include reporting and electronic monitoring have been
found to yield an appearance rate before immigration courts of well over 90
percent. They are effective and significantly cheaper, with some programs
costing as little as $12 per day compared to the $99 per day in the average
detention center. Prisons should be for criminals, not honest, productive people
caught up in the byzantine morass of our broken immigration system.
By the
end of 2009 the U.S. government will have more than 440,000 people in
immigration custody -- more than triple the number of people in detention just
ten years ago. While it is not good policy to put immigrants with no criminal
record and who pose no threat to our community behind bars, it is certainly not
in our best interest to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on detaining a
civilian population when alternatives have been proven to work.
This August,
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced the beginning of major
detention reforms at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), shutting down
the deadly and infamous T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas and increasing
direct government oversight of privately-run detention centers and
accountability within ICE for substandard detention facilities.
While I am
thrilled that the Obama Administration is beginning to address these issues, it
is merely the first step toward reforming our failed immigration detention
system. As Congress begins consideration of comprehensive immigration reform
next year, it is crucial to continue to shine a light on the need to re-haul our
current immigration detention system, which has failed to make Americans safer
while undermining our values and wasting taxpayer dollars. Regardless of what
internal policies are implemented at the DHS, Congress must define humane
enforcement and ensure that detention standards are enforced if ICE is not able
to do so. Decisions about whether vulnerable populations should be held in
detention, the conditions immigrant detainees are subject to, and how much of a
role alternatives to detention should play a part of a truly humane civil
detention system are too important to leave up to DHS to decide
With President Obama committed to enacting comprehensive
immigration reform and the Congress set to consider and debate reform early next
year, it is crucial that we reform our immigration detention system immediately.
By strengthening accountability and oversight to of detention facilities,
investigating abuses in detention and expanding cost saving and more cost saving
and humane "alternatives to detention" for law-abiding immigrants we can reform
our detention policies to better reflect our American values and save taxpayer

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