One of the worst messes facing the Obama administration is the disgraceful state of the federal government’s immigration detention centers.
There are 350 of these centers around the country, housing almost 30,000 men, women and even children waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether or not they will be deported. Some have been in custody for years. The centers are overcrowded. Newspapers and academic and civil liberties studies tell of physically and mentally ill inmates being denied help.
Given that they are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, you’d think these people would be suspected terrorists, threats to national security. Many, however, are guilty of nothing except seeking asylum from their native lands. Plenty have been swept up in the increasing number of raids by immigration officers. Some of these are actually here legally but are detained until they can prove it. Others have committed crimes, although some of the violations are so small they would have rated only a light fine or jail sentence in the criminal justice system.
As Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote in The Washington Post last year, “Most are working-class men and women or indigent laborers who made mistakes that seem to pose no threat to national security….” The reporters counted 83 deaths in the last five years among those in detention centers and those who had just left them.
The American Civil Liberties Union, on a Web site devoted to the issue, said: “Within hours of their arrest, many immigrants caught up in raids are transferred to remote out-of-state detention centers and pressured into signing removal orders, often without being able to tell anyone where they are; as a result, family and lawyers have no time or ability to provide support and a legal defense. Inhumane and cruel conditions of confinement in the immigration detention centers are pervasive.”
University of Arizona researchers investigated three detention centers in that state, and in a report, “Unseen Children,” said mothers are separated from children in the immigration raids. The report also said the facilities did not provide enough care for the physically and mentally ill. It said inmates were denied chances to meet with lawyers or talk to relatives. And the researchers said noncriminal immigration women detainees were mixed with convicted criminals in some facilities.
Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me such mixing “is completely against our policy.” Inmates, he said, were permitted to make free phone calls to their countries’ consulates “and collect calls to anyone else.” Medical care is “excellent,” he said, provided by “an array of doctors, mental health professionals and staff.”
Recently, however, I met with Ahila Arulanantham and Marisol Orihueta, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. They told me a different story. One of their clients, for example, is Diana Santander (full name: Oscar “Diana” Santander Leyva), a transgender person. The ACLU lawyers gave me copies of the court documents they’d filed on her behalf. Her story illustrates how immigrants can be unjustly locked up for long periods.
In her native Mexico, law enforcement officers treated her brutally because of her sexual status. On one occasion, they forced her to perform oral sex on officers, then burned her thighs with cigars. Another time, police officers attacked her with a knife, beat her with a gun butt and called her a “fucking faggot.”
Trying to escape the torture, Santander fled to the United States in 2004, entering illegally. In 2007, she was arrested and convicted of prostitution and trespassing and turned over to federal immigration authorities for deportation. Later, she learned that the brutality inflicted on her by the Mexican cops amounted to torture as defined in the United Nations Convention Against Torture. She applied for asylum.
Government attorneys objected, saying she had been jailed in Mexico more than eight years before on a robbery charge. The immigration judge sided with Santander, citing a lack of evidence that there had actually been a robbery. The judge granted her request for asylum. But that didn’t set her free. The government has appealed, and Santander remains in custody, where she has been for 21 months.
Whether the detention centers will be reformed is up to President Obama’s chief of the Department of Homeland Security, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Her record makes you wonder just how far she’ll go.
As the popular Democratic governor of a conservative Republican state, Napolitano had to walk the line between anti-immigrant conservatives and Democrats (including Latinos) who opposed harsh measures. She signed a law imposing tough penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. She has also been allied with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, the state’s largest city. He became well known for making inmates wear pink underwear, housing them in tents and feeding them green-colored food. She got along well enough with the sheriff for him to endorse her for governor in her first race. This helped her win a narrow victory.
Once in her new Cabinet job, she said she intends to get “criminal aliens” off the streets. Presumably this means off the streets and into mandatory detention facilities, where they will await deportation hearings in the overcrowded centers.
To put them into detention, Napolitano can use laws that have greatly expanded the number of offenses for which mandatory detention is required. Previously, many immigrants were allowed to be free while awaiting their deportation hearings. Now they are just jailed. Diana Santander’s prostitution arrest would have earned her a night in county jail in the criminal justice system, not the months she has spent in jail under immigration jurisdiction.
Those who blame the recent Republican administration for the mess in the detention centers should be reminded that these laws were passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, who was desperately trying to court conservative voters after the Democratic congressional losses in 1994. The law doubled the number of immigrants in detention; the number grew swiftly after the Bush administration moved against immigrants after Sept. 11, 2001.
Don’t expect this mess to be cleaned up soon, especially with Secretary Napolitano sounding like a hard-liner. There is too much anti-immigrant sentiment. The detention centers were built with a bipartisan stamp of approval, with Democrats as well as Republicans supporting their expansion. Finally, given the poverty and low societal status of the inmates, few people will crusade on their behalf.
This column was originally published on Truthdig (www.truthdig.com).