Copyrighted material


by Michele Deitch and Sunita Patel

on Casualties in the Border War

(PNS) -- Lost in the news about the immigration reform package was an incident with diplomatic implications. Recently the U.S. government shamefully denied a United Nations expert access to two immigrant detention lock-ups during the expert's three-week fact-finding mission to the United States.

Jorge Bustamante, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, was invited by the U.S. State Department to observe and investigate immigrant detention in the United States. Yet on April 30, he was denied access to the T. Don Hutto detention facility, a private Texas prison that holds entire families, even small children, behind bars. Then, on May 14, the official was refused access to the Monmouth County jail in New Jersey, which houses almost 150 immigrant men and women pursuant to a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The refusals reveal the total lack of transparency in the system of immigrant detention in the United States. To deny access to an independent observer, such as the UN expert, is to draw an iron curtain around those imprisoned in our name. As Mr. Bustamante has commented, it raises the perception that there is something to hide, and it eliminates an avenue for detainees to register complaints about mistreatment or abuse.

While such secrecy is of concern in any closed institution, it is particularly troubling when the U.S. immigrant detention system has such a deplorable track record. For over a decade, the media, human rights groups, and government audits have reported accounts of staff-on-detainee rapes, brutal assaults, and attacks by dogs; there have been numerous deaths due to denial of basic medical care; and detainees have been denied access to counsel. Conditions like these can thrive unless outsiders are permitted to observe and report.

It strains credulity to think that a private prison company -- the Corrections Corporation of America -- and a local sheriff, both under lucrative contracts with the federal government, can thumb their noses at the United Nations and the U.S. State Department and thwart the kind of inspection that routinely takes place all over the world by U.N. observers. The federal government clearly has authority to admit the official to these two lock-ups. That DHS declined to exercise this authority speaks volumes about the federal government's lack of commitment both to the U.N. and to international human rights protections.

The justifications offered by DHS for the denials of access ring hollow. "Pending litigation" about conditions was the reason offered at the Hutto prison in Texas. Yet this is exactly when independent observers should be invited in. While the UN expert's visit would have little bearing on the actual lawsuit, it would have everything to do with letting the public and the international community know whether the widely reported concerns about the family detention facility are valid. An agency's credibility is enhanced, not threatened, when it invites outside observers to inspect or monitor conditions behind the walls. According to the U.N. expert, no explanation was even proffered for turning down his visit to the Monmouth County jail.

The current scheme of detention oversight in this country is woefully inadequate, a point driven home by DHS's inspector general (IG). In January 2007, the IG issued a damning report that criticized ICE for its inadequate annual inspections of its own prisons and its contracted facilities, and for non-compliance with its own standards and procedures, including grievance processes. What's more, former DHS Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson has testified about existing gaping holes in detention oversight and accountability, emphasizing that greater transparency is needed when it comes to complaints about abuse and sexual assault in these detention facilities.

As the United States continues debate on the immigration reform package, we must take steps to ensure that detainees are treated humanely and to establish effective oversight of detention conditions. We should enhance transparency and promote accountability for the protection of human rights by creating an independent agency with authority to conduct unannounced inspections and to report publicly on conditions for all persons in detention. A related proposal contained within the Safe and Secure Detention Act (Senator Lieberman's Amendment #1191 to the pending immigration bill) passed unanimously on June 6. And we should welcome with open arms any international officials who wish to visit these prisons and jails. This would send a powerful message to the rest of the world about our nation's commitment to human rights protections and fair treatment of immigrants.

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Albion Monitor   June 12, 2007   (

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