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An Important Step Forward: ICE Unveils Detention Center to Look & Feel Less Like Prison.

The new ICE detention center in Texas. Credit: Ben Sklar for the New York Times

I have witnessed a civil detention center used solely by ICE that looked and actually was more restrictive than jails designed to house criminal suspects. As an attorney, I have visited the detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey on several occasions.

The building is located in a bleak industrial area (what Jersey is infamous for) and the detainees are not even allowed to go outside. They are cooped up inside for their entire stay, which can be for months or even years.

To visit a detainee, the entry process feels like a maximum security prison, with morose security guards screening you like you are intent on causing a prison riot.

Monmouth County Jail, which is primarily used to house criminal suspects but also by  ICE,  inmates are free to walk the halls and can be seen playing sports or exercising outside. In other words, criminal jails often treat their detainees better than civil detention centers, which by their definition hold persons that are not criminals.

Today, ICE revealed that it has not completely ignored advocates’ requests for more humane treatment of immigrant detainees. According to the New York Times:

 On a patch of Texas farmland near the Gulf of Mexico, immigrationofficials on Tuesday unveiled one of the most visible results of a three-year-old plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration detention system: a brand-new center intended to provide a less penal setting for detainees…

Inside, behind high tan-colored walls, the center has the feel of a school, with dormitories of bunk beds, a gymnasium, a library, computers with Internet access, cable television, a medical center, landscaped courtyards, an outdoor soccer pitch and courts for basketball and volleyball.

There are also courtrooms for immigration hearings, which will be conducted before judges in San Antonio and Houston via video conferencing.(emphasis added)

As an attorney representing detained immigrants, the biggest single challenge is communication with the client. It is often prohibitively expensive or simply impossible to communicate with a detained immigrant. If the client does not have money in his account, he cannot call his attorney. Even if he does have money in his account, the one moment he has time to call, his/her attorney may not be available. And more times than not, no one can call the immigrant. Furthermore, detainees are often housed far away from family, friends, and their attorney, making a personal visit extremely difficult.

Therefore, the introduction of internet access to detained immigrants is a very important step in affording detainees with the proper due process rights guaranteed to them by the US constitution.

The Detractors

Some anti-immigrants, like the oft-quoted Congressman Lamar Smith, raise misleading criticisms of the new guidelines:  “a hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants.”

Smith went further, stating that: “The administration goes beyond common sense to accommodate illegal immigrants and treats them better than citizens in federal custody,”

Smith dishonestly analogizes “illegal immigrants” to “citizens” in federal custody. The latter are being held on suspicion of violating criminal law while the former upon suspicion of violating civil immigration laws. Many if not most of the time, the “illegal immigrant” that Smith so effectively dehumanizes by stripping that person of its humanity with the adjective “illegal”, is in fact a great person, who has raised a family, led an upstanding life,  and has contributed to our society.

In the worst case scenario, immigrants held in detention are extremely vulnerable: they may be fleeing persecution, mentally ill, or even victims of serious crimes within the United States. I have seen, for example, a person that was twice the victim of rape be detained for months solely because of her immigration status.

In fact, many of these “illegal immigrants” subject to detention have done exponentially more for the US than its own citizens (such as those that Smith refers to in federal custody).

We hope that this new detention center is not the first of its kind. Even though there is no empirically concrete benefit gained by detaining and deporting anyone–apart from getting politicians elected–the government should at least treat the cannon fodder it has coerced into its system with dignity and respect.

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