The way the government detains illegal immigrants often breaks fundamental constitutional guarantees, and holding whole families in detention is a particularly harsh abuse of human rights, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said in a controversial new report Thursday, wading deeply into the immigration debate.
Some detention facilities — both government-run and private ones operating on contracts — don’t provide good medical care, deny illegal immigrants the chance to try to get lawyers to help them with their cases, look the other way when rape or sexual abuse occurs, don’t allow Muslims adequate leeway to celebrate Ramadan, and mistreat transgender detainees, the majority report concluded.
Two of the eight commissioners issued stinging rebuttals, questioning whether the commission even had jurisdiction to look at immigration enforcement, and portraying the report as rehashed innuendo and discredited accusations.
But the majority said the abuses the commission found were so egregious that the administration should immediately release all families being held, and urged Congress to withdraw funding overall, saying the government should find other ways to track illegal immigrants rather than holding them in detention.
“From calling immigrants ‘illegal aliens’ and ‘invading hordes,’ to the most recent rantings of presidential candidates spewing anti-immigrant, anti-Latino and anti-Mexican vitriol, we have witnessed the creation of an environment which condones the inhumane treatment of immigrants, especially those coming from Latin America,” commission Chairman Martin R. Castro wrote, accusing Homeland Security of subjecting illegal immigrants to “torture-like conditions.”
The report was adopted by five of the eight commissioners. One of the eight recused herself, while the two dissenters said the majority got snookered by immigrant-rights advocates.
“It is said that where there is smoke, there is fire. But sometimes where there is smoke, there is only a smoke-making machine, busily stoked by publicists working for activist organizations,” said Gail Heriot, one of the dissenting commissioners.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said they were reviewing the report, but said they take the care of immigrants in their custody seriously. She said they’ve made steady improvements, including major changes Secretary Jeh Johnson announced in June to speed illegal immigrants through detention as quickly as possible.
“We are transitioning these facilities into short-term processing centers where individuals who claim fear of return to their countries can be interviewed for asylum and other humanitarian protections. Families who establish a credible or reasonable fear of persecution will be released under conditions designed to ensure their compliance with their immigration obligations,” Ms. Catron said.
Homeland Security has also agreed not to use detention as a deterrent to other would-be illegal immigrants, and to request lower bonds that illegal immigrants might be able to post.
But Mr. Castro said that is “nothing but lip service,” and there has been little change on the ground.
The commission’s report comes at a touchy time in the immigration debate.
The findings echo what some Democratic presidential candidates have argued on the campaign trail. But Republican candidates are tilting the other direction, questioning why the Obama administration has been unable to detain and deport more illegal immigrants.
The surge of both unaccompanied illegal immigrant children and mothers traveling with young children, who have jumped the border in record numbers over the last few years, have tested the administration’s abilities.
And a federal judge in California has been looking at the family detention facilities, and has issued a preliminary finding that Homeland Security is in violation of a 1997 agreement on how children should be treated when in custody.
Advocacy groups and the Homeland Security Department are still hashing that case out.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that handles detention and deportation, set up thousands of new beds in special facilities designed to hold families, complete with athletic fields, clinics, school rooms and snacks.
Before the additional beds were added, most illegal immigrant families were released into the population, where they were much less likely to show up for their deportation proceedings.
The Civil Rights Commission, though, said the way the government treats families could violate their due process rights, particularly when facilities make it difficult for illegal immigrants to retain or stay in contact with lawyers.
The report had particularly harsh criticism of private facilities contracted to hold illegal immigrants, saying they often appear to run afoul of federal treatment guidelines.
Under congressional mandates, Homeland Security is required to maintain an average of 34,000 detention beds a day — though the administration says it’s not actually required to fill them all.
The Obama administration has argued it is often more cost-effective and humane to release illegal immigrants under alternatives to detention, such as ankle-monitoring or having them check in by phone.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and three House Democrats introduced a bill Thursday that would, among other steps, eliminate the 34,000-bed mandate and encourage more use of alternatives.
The Washington Times reported in June that nearly all of those released under electronic monitoring broke the terms of their release, with many of them racking up multiple violations. All told, the 41,000 immigrants put on electronic monitoring notched 300,000 violations in 2014, the Times reported.
The commission’s report compiles accusations advocacy groups have lodged for years — some of them having already been investigated and dismissed by internal watchdogs such as the Government Accountability Office or the inspector general’s office within Homeland Security.
For example, an American Civil Liberties Union complaint listing more than 100 abuses of unaccompanied minors last year was found to be unsubstantiated by the inspector general.
And reports from both the GAO and inspector general found agents going above and beyond their duties to care for some of the children.