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Detained immigrants often face harsh, unfair treatment in U.S. hands, study says

Resource type: News

The San Francisco Chronicle (California) |

by Tyche Hendricks

More than 400,000 people a year are detained by immigration officials in the United States – including undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants who run afoul of the law and asylum seekers who come fleeing persecution – but according to a report released today by Amnesty International, conditions are often deplorable and detainees are routinely denied due process.

It’s the second major human rights report in a week to indict the nation’s immigration detention system. The system is attracting increased attention in part because the number of people in detention has grown exponentially in recent years and in part because of dozens of in-custody deaths and a lawsuit over the treatment of children.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last month ordered her department to examine all aspects of Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations and hired a special assistant, Dora Schriro, to oversee detention and removal conditions.

A spokeswoman for ICE, as the immigration enforcement agency is known, acknowledged Tuesday that concerns have been raised about the treatment of immigration detainees.

“We have already made appreciable gains in improving the detention system by adopting detention standards and monitoring the compliance with those standards,” said Cori Bassett. “All that said, the care and treatment that some detainees receive does not yet meet our shared expectation of excellence, and we can all agree this is a reason for concern.”

The cases of two Bay Area men illustrate two of the problems highlighted by the Amnesty report: Detainees often are denied due process, and the burden is on the detainees to prove they don’t belong in custody.

Afghanistan-born Lemar Nasir of Fremont and Thailand-born Yuttasak Simma of San Francisco were taken into ICE custody in 2007, though both are naturalized U.S. citizens.

Though the men told immigration officials of their citizenship, neither had papers to prove it, and both languished in immigration custody in Santa ClaraCounty jail – Nasir for 11 months, Simma for seven – before a lawyer finally secured their release.

Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus who represented the men, called the cases a violation of the men’s constitutional right to due process.

“Absent congressional authorization, you cannot use immigration laws to lock up a citizen,” she said. “And this is not unusual: I have on my docket right now five to seven of these cases. People have legitimate claims to citizenship, and they inform ICE, yet there’s no formal procedure to figure out what to do with these folks.”

The Amnesty International report, “Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA,” noted a variety of concerns over due process and the conditions of detention:

— People in immigration custody don’t have the same guarantees as criminal detainees to challenge their detention before a court, make a phone call or obtain legal representation.

— Detainees can be transferred from one facility to another, sometimes in another state, with no notice given to their families or attorneys.

— Two-thirds of people in federal immigration custody are housed in state or county detention facilities, usually alongside criminal detainees, even though violations of immigration law are considered administrative, not criminal, and asylum seekers have committed no violation.

— Immigrants are subject to excessive use of restraints such as handcuffs, waist chains and leg restraints.

“In the criminal justice system, anyone arrested is assumed innocent, but in the immigration system, they’re put in detention, and then it’s the individual’s burden to prove they shouldn’t be detained,” said Sarnata Reynolds, an author of the report. “That’s why you’ll see long periods of detention, because it’s an incredibly high burden.”

Both the Amnesty report and a study released last week by Human Rights Watch faulted ICE for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health treatment to detainees. Human Rights Watch, which focused on women’s access to health care, emphasized problems with perinatal care and care for survivors of sexual violence.

Since 2003, 90 people have died in immigration custody, according to Schriro of Homeland Security. Immigration authorities last year pointed out that the death rate in immigration detention is a small fraction of that in other U.S. jails and prisons.

But earlier this month, Schriro testified before Congress that detainees did not always receive timely and appropriate medical care. She vowed improvements.

A 2007 lawsuit over the treatment of children in immigration custody led to improvements in the conditions at a private Texas prison where families are held.

The Amnesty report called on the Obama administration to consider alternatives to detention for immigrants who are neither a flight risk nor a danger to others. That’s a proposal endorsed by San Jose Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.

“Oftentimes there are alternatives, like these ankle bracelets and bonds and other ways to make sure the person doesn’t disappear into the woodwork,” said Lofgren, who is particularly incensed that asylum seekers are locked up until they can make the case they’d face persecution in their home countries.

“You’ve got people now waiting six months for a 20-minute asylum interview,” she said. “Well, at $90 a day, the meter’s running here. How can it possibly be cost-effective to postpone a 20-minute interview? It’s stupid.”

Online resources

  • — To see the Amnesty International report, “Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA,” go to
  • — To see the Human Rights Watch report, “Detained and Dismissed: Women’s Struggles to Obtain Health Care in United States Immigration Detention,” go to
  • — For more information about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, go to

Online resources

Immigration detention by the numbers

1.1 million People currently in deportation proceedings.

400,000 People detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement every year.

31,000 People in immigration custody on average.

10,000 People in immigration custody on average 10 years ago.

$90 Cost per day to hold a person in immigration detention.

90 Number of people who died in immigration custody since 2003.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation, Immigration & Migration

Global Impact:

United States