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Immigration Detention

2011 May 16

Immigration Detention Reform: A Matter of Life and Death

This deeply disturbing report on the reproductive health rights website RH Reality Check highlights the profound inadequacy of the medical and mental health care services available to women incarcerated in the mostly for-profit prisons contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to the article more than 400,000 people per year are thrown into immigration detention. Women, who have special medical needs, make up roughly 10 percent of that total. Note that, for the most part at least, these women have not been convicted or even accused of crimes other than immigration violations. 

We met women who required screening and treatment for breast and cervical cancer but experienced extended delays and outright denials. We met women who complained of inadequate care during pregnancy, including one diagnosed with an ovarian cyst that threatened her five-month pregnancy shortly before she was detained who never got to see a doctor. We met pregnant women who did get a doctor’s appointment, but who were taken there shackled. We met mothers who were nursing their babies prior to detention and were then denied breast pumps in the facilities, resulting in fever, pain, mastitis, and the inability to continue breastfeeding upon release.
            We met women who had to beg, plead, and in some cases do chores within the facility just to get enough sanitary pads not to bleed through their clothes…We met women who sought mental health care for pre-existing conditions, including the effects of trauma, and for the stress of detention but found that the crisis orientation of the services that were available meant they could not get  counseling, and could expect to be put in isolation if their condition deteriorated to the point where they were suicidal.

Author Meghan Rhoad is a researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. She centers her article on a Haitian woman she gives the pseudonym Antoinette L., who was the driving force behind a letter sent in 2008 by women in an Arizona ICE facility to legal aid and human rights groups. Among other things, the women reported that their complaints were met with responses like these:

  • “You should have made better choices…ICE is not here to make you comfortable…
  • “Our hands are tied…We can’t do much, you’re getting deported anyway…
  • “Learn English before you cross the border…Mi casa no es su casa…”

Antoinette’s story, which the article conveys in some detail, is clearly representative of thousands of other women detainees. When Rhoad first met her three years ago, she had already been in ICE custody for almost six months. When the researcher returned for a visit to the detention facility recently Antoinette was still there – and she delivered some sad and shocking news. To try to summarize her story would not do it justice. Please read this article.

RH Reality Check is an online community and publication serving individuals and organizations committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. Rhoad’s article is one in a series on immigration issues as they relate to women. (Illustration above from GWS350.)

Immigrants Behind Bars:
How, Why, and How Much?

This new report from the National Immigration Forum looks at the costs local jurisdictions incur through the often unnecessary detention of immigrants

[This] backgrounder provides explanations of the ways that immigrants end up in local custody and are held there on the basis of their immigration status. It also explores the associated fiscal costs of increased detention to states and counties. In recent years police have increasingly been drawn into immigration enforcement operations, and as a result, local jails are holding increased numbers of immigrants, even those not facing criminal charges. Detaining immigrants in state or local custody creates additional costs and burdens on local law enforcement agencies, and the unnecessary and prolonged detention of immigrants costs local budgets millions of taxpayer dollars per year.

Visit the Forum’s website for other publications.

U.S. Detention Practices called
“Disproportionate” and “Punitive”

A 155-page report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights criticizes the U.S. government for its unnecessary reliance on detention and its detention of immigration detainees in “unacceptable” conditions in facilities that “employ disproportionately restrictive penal and punitive measures.” According to Human Rights First, the report addresses many of the ways in which the U.S. detention system for immigrants and asylum seekers is – despite some recent reform efforts – inconsistent with international human rights standards. A fact sheet on the IACHR report is available from Human Rights Watch.

“Massive Crisis” in Immigration Courts
Keeps Asylum Seekers in Limbo for Years

On a closely related note, a recent article by Sharon Cohen for the AP documents the five-year struggle of a woman from Cameroon, a survivor of severe torture, to obtain Asylum in the United States. During that time, her husband died in prison in Cameroon, and she was unable to communicate with her children who – by the time of the Asylum decision – were ill and reduced to begging.

If the system had worked, this kind of asylum case would have been resolved promptly. But this was immigration court, where justice often moves at a glacial pace. Files were lost. Background checks delayed. Hearings scheduled at least 12 times over five years. The woman’s lawyers, fearing their fragile client had become suicidal, were so alarmed they appealed to two members of Congress — not to intervene, but to call attention to what they say is a system in desperate need of reform.

The woman profiled in this case had the support of some obviously skilled and committed attorneys. Most asylum seekers do not, and many must pursue their cases while held in ICE detention.


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