Scathing Report Calls for Dismantling Immigrant Detention System

International Workers' Day supporters gather in downtown Los Angeles on May 1 to raise awareness about minimum wage and immigration issues (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida-Nueva).

A scathing new report on the conditions under which immigrants are detained concludes with the U.S. bishops' recommendation that the current system be dismantled and replaced with less drastic approaches for keeping track of people whose immigration cases are pending.

Drawing on international law, analyses of who is detained, how the mostly for-profit prison industry manages detention and bishops' personal experiences with people in detention, the report called instead for more supervised release, better case management and community support programs to ensure that people show up for court appearances or deportation orders.


The report released May 11, "Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System," was a joint project of the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic migration policy think tank.

In a teleconference about the report that same day, two bishops said they expect Pope Francis will address the topic when he visits the United States in September. Among the events on the pope's agenda are speeches to a joint meeting of Congress and the United Nations.

"The pope will certainly address this issue," said Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration. The pope has spoken several times about immigrants who are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy and Greece, he noted. The pope is also concerned about the situations people are forced to live in after they flee famine or war in their own countries, he said.

"I'd be surprised if Holy Father did not address this. It is close to his heart," said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, a member of the migration committee and chairman of the Center for Migration Studies.

The bishops said the report outlines unacceptable detention practices, especially for mothers and children.

Bishop Elizondo said the use of detention for entire families must end and that the detention system "goes against the values of our nation."

Bishop DiMarzio said the vast expansion of immigrant detention centers -- up to 250 nationwide, which cost $1.7 billion to maintain -- amounts to corporations making money out of "the misery of other human beings."

"No one should be locked up," he said. "There are more effective and cheaper ways to ensure court appearances."

Don Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, said the report's main findings include replacing the detention centers with different types of supervision -- such as ankle bracelet monitoring and other systems for checking in -- and putting immigrants in the least restrictive settings.

While efforts in the Obama administration to reform the immigrant detention system have had some success, Kerwin said, it's not enough and the number of people in detention has continued to rise.

The report described the current backlog of immigration cases in the federal court system -- typically 18 months -- and the conditions under which tens of thousands of people are being held. Meanwhile, the immigration court system is severely underfunded, which means immigrant detainees -- most of whom do not have criminal records and are charged only with civil violations of immigration law -- spend that time in prisonlike conditions, the report noted.

Among the report's findings and recommendations:

-- Immigrants awaiting adjudication of their cases, ranging from applications for asylum to charges of being in the country illegally, are held in more restrictive prisonlike situations, with less recourse to judicial review, than some people who have been convicted of crimes. "No other U.S. legal system permits a deprivation of liberty without review and oversight by an independent judiciary," it said.

-- Detention has been proven to not be an effective deterrent to illegal immigration and "the vast majority of families would appear for removal proceedings with appropriate orientation, supervision and community support."

-- Congress should repeal its mandatory detention requirements for all but "the most egregious criminal and national security cases. U.S. mandatory detention laws cover lawful permanent residents, asylum-seekers, petty offenders, and persons with U.S. families and other enduring ties to the United States" This prevents the release of people who have family ties, jobs and housing which tie them to the community.

-- The report said people charged with immigration-related crimes have the highest rate of being jailed pre-trial of all criminal defendants, including those accused of violent crimes and weapons charges.

-- "Private corporations should have more limited, regulated and modest role in a shrinking detention system."

The report noted that the companies running immigrant detention centers under contract with the government reported revenues in the billions of dollars in 2014. Those companies have strong lobbying efforts including those encouraging "draconian immigration enforcement laws (like Arizona's S.B. 1070) that have been opposed by the Obama administration and for funding for services that government agencies do not need or want."

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