Human Dignity is Not a Joke

April 4, 2012

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX) presided over a hearing called “Holiday on ICE” to mock the Obama administration’s plans to improve immigration detention conditions. Smith jeeringly referred to the minimum standards set earlier this year for medical care, protections from sexual abuse and assault, and access to counsel as “hospitality guidelines.” The new immigration detention standards are far from perfect: they do not provide alternatives to incarceration options, even for minors and the disabled. However, they are a much-needed first step in improving the incarceration conditions for immigrants, and a long overdue move towards treating detainees with the human dignity they deserve.

Smith’s sarcasm insults immigrants and obscures the harrowing conditions detainees face. There have been over a hundred deaths and numerous rapes and sexual assaults in detention facilities since ICE was created as a part of Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In 2007, Boubacar Bah died from head injuries that were left untreated for thirteen hours while in detention in New Jersey. In 2007, Rosa Isela Contreras-Dominguez, a thirty-five year old pregnant woman died after she was refused medical treatment while in custody in El Paso, Texas. These are just two cases of many.

Thousands of men, women and even children are being detained for violations of immigration law. Since immigration cases are civil and not criminal in nature, ICE is legally prohibited from detaining immigrants for punitive reasons. However, even though the cases are civil, the agency models immigration detention after criminal incarceration systems. And although modeled on criminal systems, detainees do not have the protections applicable to those incarcerated under criminal laws. As a result, immigrant detainees face unique challenges. For example, the Prison Rape Elimination Act does not apply to immigration detention centers, and immigrant detainees have no right to counsel. Also, ICE employs a haphazard detention system that includes privately-owned detention facilities, ICE facilities, and county facilities, making tracking and oversight extremely difficult. Often, many of the detainees are transferred far from their families and from any legal counsel they may have established.

Immigrant detention conditions in the US have long been criticized by human rights groups. ICE only made the regulation changes after years of being criticized by investigative news reports and human rights groups. The new standards seek to reduce detention transfers by placing centers in strategic locations, require strip searches to be performed by guards of the same gender to lower risk of sexual assault, require safe water and improved medical treatments, and seek to improve processes for reporting sexual assault.

When we place people in cages, we assume a responsibility to treat them humanely. Rules designed to prevent death, rape, or assault and providing basic medical care are not luxuries. And the absence of those rules is no joke.