Archived: Policy Reforms Needed to Ensure the Humane Treatment of Immigrant Detainees

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced the results of a sweeping review of America’s immigrant detention system. Acknowledging its shortcomings, she pledged that her Department would implement a series of reforms to improve the management and oversight of this sprawling network of facilities. While I commend the Secretary’s determination to chart a bold new course in the treatment of detained immigrants, I remain convinced that administrative changes alone are insufficient to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of the more than 300,000 people who pass through our immigration jails every year. Congressional action is urgently needed to restore decency and transparency to our scandal-plagued detention system.

On any given night, more than 30,000 immigrants go to sleep in detention centers across America. Included in their growing ranks are asylum seekers, torture survivors, children, pregnant women and the elderly. Many have sought legal assistance only to discover that none is available; others have requested medical treatment and failed to receive it; still others have tried to contact loved ones and found that even the telephones don’t work.

Even more troubling is the long list of immigrants who have succumbed to preventable medical conditions in detention. Hui Lui Ng, a Chinese computer engineer, Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea, and Tanveer Ahmad, a Pakistani cabdriver—three victims profiled in the media—are part of a growing list of detainees who have died in agony because their desperate appeals for medical attention were ignored until it was too late.

I support Secretary Napolitano’s intention to implement a stronger regulatory framework to prevent the reoccurrence of these tragedies. She wants to end the prevailing “one size fits all” approach to detention by individually screening each detainee upon arrival. Those who suffer from serious medical conditions will receive the treatment they require and those who don’t pose a flight risk or constitute a threat to their communities will be placed in supervision programs that offer an effective alternative to incarceration.

I am also encouraged by the Secretary’s efforts to strengthen oversight of the detention system. By hiring 50 specialists to monitor the largest detention centers and by eventually placing officials at every facility where immigrants are held, she hopes to exercise more direct control over this patchwork system. To that end, she is also centralizing management of the Department’s contracts with its state, local and private partners. Where the treatment of detainees fails to meet expectations, contractors will be penalized and, in extreme cases, their agreements with the federal government will be cancelled.

While I applaud these sensible reforms, I also believe that Congress has an important role to play in reshaping our detention policies. I introduced the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act in the House of Representatives to strengthen and codify detention regulations and to help ensure unaccompanied children are treated compassionately. My bill would also guarantee every detainee access to medical care and legal advice.

The case for enacting enforceable standards is clear. Our existing regulations have repeatedly failed to protect the most vulnerable detainees. Giving these rules the full force of law will bring new accountability to a system which has proven incapable of policing itself. Enforceable standards will also ensure immigrants are afforded the same basic level of treatment at every detention center—from the largest federal facility to the most remote county jail.

Our detention system faces great challenges but under Secretary Napolitano’s capable leadership, it appears at last to be moving in the right direction. I welcome her thoughtful approach to this complex issue and remain committed to advancing legislation which will further our common goals. With the adoption of these reforms, America’s immigration jails—long a national embarrassment—will finally reflect our laws and our values.

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard represents California’s 34th District and is a Member of the House Appropriations Committee, the Subcommittees on Homeland Security, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies and the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

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