BY STEPHEN GURR
Attorney David Kennedy says clients of his who have been held in immigration detention centers in South Georgia and eastern Alabama routinely are denied fundamental rights.
"I have had clients who have had no access to phones for extended periods of time. I have had clients being questioned and induced into signing things they did not understand," said Kennedy, a Gainesville immigration lawyer.
"I have had clients complain they were stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day. There’s definitely a problem with immigration detention in this country."
On the eve of a new immigration detention center opening in
Gainesville, a report issued this week by National Immigration Law Center appears to validate Kennedy’s complaints.
The report, based on confidential Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents obtained in litigation, alleges there are pervasive problems throughout the country’s immigration detention facilities, many of which are operated by private contractors.
Detainees are routinely denied visitation with family members, access to legal materials and regular recreation, according to the report. Many never get an explanation of their rights while being detained, the report claims.
"The conditions are much more harsh than they ought to be," said the report’s co-author, Ranjana Natarajan. "This is a civil detention, and these folks are being treated like hardened criminals."
The Corrections Corporation of America could begin boarding immigration detainees at its new North Georgia Detention Center on Main Street as soon as next week. The site of the old county jail adjoining the Hall County Sheriff’s office underwent $4 million in renovations and is being leased from Hall County for $2 million a year. CCA operates the detention center through an agreement with ICE and the county.
This week, ICE officials did not deny the allegations contained in the report, vowing to continue to improve conditions. But Department of Homeland Security officials recently decided against creating uniform detention center standards that the National Immigration Law Center wants. ICE is supposed to conduct yearly evaluations of every detention center, but has no enforceable, binding legal rules on how inmates are treated, according to the report.
"It creates a lot of gray area," Natarajan said. "Because (detention centers) are not expected to follow the rules, they’re all over the map."
ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said agency officials "feel the NILC put together a very thoughtful report, and we will carefully review and take seriously this report, as we would any report. We are committed to continuously improving our immigration detention system."
Gonzalez noted that within 10 days of taking office, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ordered all immigration enforcement policies to undergo a review, "including detention." In February, Napolitano appointed former Arizona Department of Corrections director Dora Schriro as a special advisor for detention and removal.
"Her position was created to focus exclusively on the significant growth in detention and detainment in the last few years," Gonzalez said.
On any given day, ICE holds about 33,000 immigration detainees in facilities across the country, and supervises another 17,000 people facing deportation through electronic monitoring and other means. The National Immigration Law Center estimates that in 2008 about 220,000 people were held in detention centers prior to deportation. The typical stay is 30 to 90 days.
The Gainesville facility operated by CCA is expected to hold about 500 low- and medium-security immigration detainees, many of them from North Carolina.
CCA spokeswoman Louise Grant referred questions on this week’s report to ICE officials, but noted that "CCA does adhere in every one of our ICE detention facilities to the detention standards set by our customer."
The company also has ICE officials on site for detainee access, Grant said.
This week’s report prompted two U.S. senators to call for a change to the system.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Thursday introduced the "Strong Standards Act," a proposed bill that would set minimum detention standards and require the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that laws concerning the treatment of detainees are enforced.
"These legislative initiatives will help reinforce what our great country has always stood for: liberty, the rule of law and basic human rights," Menendez said in a statement.
To Kennedy, anything would be an improvement.
"If we’re comparing these (detention centers) to their Turkish counterparts, they’re pretty good," Kennedy said. "But by U.S. standards, they’re pretty poor."