Amnesty International: Immigrant detainees in the USA “jailed without justice”

Thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers languish in detention without judicial review, claims human rights group

25 March 2009. In a new report on the treatment of immigrant detainees released today, "Jailed without Justice", Amnesty International has found that the dramatic increase in the use of detention as an immigration enforcement mechanism in the USA results in violation of both US and international standards on the treatment of detainees.

More than 300,000 men, women and children are detained by US immigration authorities each year.

In just over a decade, immigration detention has tripled. In 1996, immigration authorities had a daily detention capacity of less than 10,000. Today more than 30,000 immigrants are detained each day, and this number is likely to increase even further.

They include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children. International human rights standards require that detention should only be used in exceptional circumstances, must be justified in each individual case and must be subject to judicial review.

However, in the USA immigrants and asylum seekers may be detained for months or even years without any form of meaningful individualized judicial review of their detention as they go through deportation procedures that will determine whether or not they are eligible to remain in the United States.

Individuals who have been ordered deported may languish in detention indefinitely if their home country is unwilling to accept their return or does not have diplomatic relations with the United States.

Unlike criminal defendants, who are entitled to a free attorney if they cannot afford one, low-income immigrants usually have to depend on the kindness of pro-bono attorneys.

The result is that the vast majority of people in immigration detention – 84 percent – lack a lawyer and are unable to obtain the legal assistance necessary to present viable claims in an adversarial and complex court process.

Without representation, Amnesty says, many immigrants simply give up and return to their home countries, even if they feel they have a strong case that they’re entitled to stay in the US.

Detention facilities are required to comply with ICE (the US immigration and customs enforcement) detention standards, however, these standards are not legally binding, and oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent, leading to practices in violation of international standards.

Immigrants are often put in excessive restraints, including handcuffs, belly chains and leg restraints, and are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses.

Individuals in detention find it very difficult to get timely – and at times any – treatment for their medical needs. 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years.

Many individuals have limited or no access to family and to legal or other assistance throughout their detention.

Furthermore, the US immigration detention system is unnecessarily costly, reports AI. While the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $95 per person/per day, alternatives to detention are significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $12 per day. Despite the proven effectiveness of these less expensive and less restrictive alternatives, the government is choosing to detain instead.

"Officials are locking up thousands of human beings without due process and holding them in a system that is impossible to navigate,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Reflective of a new administration trying to soften an often-harsh reputation during the Bush era, ICE, the US immigration and customs enforcement agency, says Amnesty might have some good points.

"We do see reason for concern and are working hard to improve,” said Cori Bassett, an ICE spokeswoman based in Washington DC. "We care deeply about a fair, humane system for folks in our custody.”

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