Immigrant Detentions Draw International Fire

Sunday, 20 March 2011 09:49 By Kirk Semple, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Immigration enforcement in the United States is plagued by unjust treatment of detainees, including inadequate access to lawyers and insufficient medical care, and by the excessive use of prison-style detention, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States said Thursday.

The group, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, issued those findings in a report that also took aim at a federal program that allows county and state law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws. The report said the government had failed to ensure that local police were not singling out people by race or detaining illegal immigrants on the pretext of investigating crimes.

The commission recommended that the federal government cancel the program, known as 287(g).

While many of the findings reiterated criticisms that have been made before by immigrant advocates and others, the report appeared to be the first comprehensive review of American immigration enforcement in recent years by an international body of the organization’s stature.

The commission, based in Washington, has no enforcement powers, but it has considerable moral authority and a record of cooperation by member countries, including the United States.

The 155-page report was based on hearings and research that began in 2008, including visits in July 2009 by a team of investigators to six American detention centers in Arizona and Texas.

Since much of the research was completed, however, the Obama administration has begun a major overhaul of the detention system. A month after the commission’s visits, immigration officials announced a sweeping plan to establish more centralized authority over the system and to renovate centers designed for penal detention to make them more appropriate for detainees facing deportation, particularly those accused of administrative violations.

The administration said it would also close centers that were rarely used or failed to meet its standards, and would consolidate the nation’s patchwork of detention centers to meet increasing demand in specific areas, especially near big cities. It also said it would explore alternatives to detention.

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Felipe González, president of the commission, acknowledged those plans but said the commission would withhold judgment on the efficacy of the reforms. “According to the information that we have so far, it’s not clear that it’s been implemented or will satisfy the international standards” of human rights, he said in an interview.

The commission will continue monitoring immigration enforcement to ensure that its grievances were addressed, Mr. González added.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees enforcement, said Thursday that the department would review the report, and made no further comment.

Earlier, however, the Obama administration was given a draft. In their response, according to the report, administration officials pointed out that they had conducted their own comprehensive review of immigration enforcement and made “important changes.”

Still, the commission said it was “deeply troubled by the continual and widespread use of detention in immigration cases,” the report said.

“The Inter-American Commission is convinced that in many if not the majority of cases, detention is a disproportionate measure and the alternatives to detention programs would be a more balanced means of serving the State’s legitimate interest in ensuring compliance with immigration laws,” the report said.

Mr. González also expressed skepticism that the administration would provide less penal settings for immigrants held on administrative, rather than criminal, charges. “It’s not clear to us whether the new system will really mean that the facility will provide migrants in detention with a system that is fully respectful of human rights,” he said.

Mr. González said his commission was inspired to investigate the system after receiving numerous requests from human rights advocates and civil society organizations. The group, he added, is now planning to investigate other immigration detention systems in the hemisphere. 

This article "Immigrant Detentions Draw International Fire" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Sunday, 20 March 2011 09:56