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Tens of Thousands Languish in Immigration Detention Without Hearings or Bond, Numbers Tripled Since 1996, Charges Amnesty Intern

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tens of Thousands Languish in Immigration Detention Without Hearings or Bond, Numbers Tripled Since 1996, Charges Amnesty International
Effective Alternatives to Detention Could Save Up to $2,500 Per Person Per Month

Contact:  Wende Gozan, 212-633-4247 (, or Sarnata Reynolds, 202-544-0200 x239.

(Washington)-- Tens of thousands of people languish in U.S. immigration detention facilities every year – including a number of U.S. citizens – without receiving a hearing to determine whether their detention is warranted, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) said in a report released today.  The report, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, shows that, in just over a decade, the number of immigrants in detention each day has tripled from 10,000 in 1996 to more than 30,000 in 2008. Numbers are likely to increase in 2009.  A majority of the detainees have extreme difficulty retaining a lawyer or help navigating the complex legal process. In some cases, individuals become so desperate that they agree to deportation even if their circumstances don’t warrant it.

The people detained include lawful permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and survivors of torture and human trafficking.  For some people, an immigration official is the final and only decision maker on detention--others receive no detention review at all.  The human rights organization stressed the need for a judicial body to review each case to determine whether detention is necessary.  In the current system, rife with errors and lacking meaningful oversight, being detained in and of itself can virtually seal an immigrant’s fate.

“America should be outraged by the scale of human rights abuses occurring within its own borders,” said Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA.  “Officials are locking up thousands of human beings without due process and holding them in a system that is impossible to navigate without the legal equivalent of GPS.  The United States has long been a country of immigrants, and whether they have been here five years or five generations, their human rights are to be respected.  The U.S. government must ensure that every person in immigration detention has a hearing to determine whether that detention is necessary.”

The AIUSA report, which launches the organization’s campaign to promote and protect the human rights of immigrants, shows that the average cost of locking up an immigrant is $95 per person, per day, or approximately $2,850 per month – which amounts to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year.  Effective alternatives to detention are available and cheaper - costing as little as $12 per day.  A study of one alternative program documented a 91-percent appearance rate before immigration courts.

According to international law and standards, detention should only be used in exceptional circumstances, must be justified in each individual case and must be subject to judicial review. For many immigrants, release from detention is out of reach because bonds are set impossibly high.  A Chinese woman told AIUSA researchers that she fled persecution after she and her mother were beaten in their home for handing out religious fliers.  She sought asylum in the United States in January 2008, but an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official decided she should remain in detention unless she paid a bond of $50,000. She had no right to appeal this decision and it took her family almost a year to raise the money to secure her release.  

Although immigration judges have the authority in some cases to release immigrants on their own recognizance or with a minimum bond of $1,500, reports indicate that the judges are now less likely to do so. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), in 2006, immigration judges in the United States declined to set bond in 14,750 cases. In 2007, the number increased to 22,254, and in the first five months of 2008, immigration judges had already refused to set bond in 21,842 cases.

Moreover, lawful permanent residents can be placed in “mandatory detention” with no right to a bond hearing before an immigration judge or judicial body. The categories of crimes that trigger mandatory detention are broad and difficult to define.  In one case, a 37-year-old lawful permanent resident was deported to Haiti for possession of stolen bus pass transfers.  The court found that these convictions constituted two “crimes of moral turpitude” warranting mandatory detention and deportation.

U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents have been incorrectly subject to mandatory detention and spent months or years behind bars before proving they are not deportable.  According to AIUSA’s research, at least 117 people have been held in mandatory detention for crimes that were ultimately determined not to be deportable offenses.  Even more astounding, in 2007 alone, legal service providers identified 322 individuals in detention who may have been able to claim U.S. citizenship. For instance, Mr. W, born in Minnesota, was placed in immigration detention in Florence, AZ.  Because he was detained, he could not access his birth certificate.  He was finally released after a month of working for a dollar a day in the prison kitchen to earn the $30 necessary to order a copy of his birth certificate.

To house the rapidly increasingly number of detained immigrants, ICE increasingly relies on contracts with state and county jails.  Approximately 350 facilities hold up to 67 percent of all detained immigrants. In theory, these facilities are required to comply with ICE detention standards; however, these standards are not legally binding, and oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent, leading to practices in violation of international standards.   For example, immigrants are often put in excessive restraints, including handcuffs, belly chains and leg restraints, and are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses.

Immigrant detainees also find it difficult to get medical attention; at least 74 immigrants have died in detention during the last five years. One 27-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan, who arrived in the United States with his refugee family at age seven, began urinating blood not long after his detention and was experiencing constant fatigue, pain and discomfort.  He waited six weeks to see a doctor, and after nine months he had yet to receive a diagnosis or treatment.  He told AIUSA he was considering giving up his citizenship claim and accepting deportation to Afghanistan in order to obtain medical care.

“When people who may well be citizens of the United States are desperate enough to be deported to countries they don’t even know, there clearly is a breakdown of disturbing proportions within the U.S. system of immigration detention,” said Sarnata Reynolds, AIUSA’s policy director for Refugee and Migrant Rights.  “Conditions in detention centers have been shown over and over again to be in violation of ICE standards and international law, but wholly absent is almost any accountability for these violations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must be held accountable and enact enforceable human rights standards to eliminate inappropriate and dangerous housing conditions.”

To rectify these issues, AIUSA calls on the U.S. government to:

    •         Pass legislation mandating that immigration detention be used only in exceptional circumstances, and ensuring that alternative         non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or affordable bond, are always considered first;
    •         Ensure that all immigrants and asylum seekers have access to individualized hearings before a judicial body at the outset on the         lawfulness, necessity and appropriateness of detention;
    •         Enact enforceable human rights detention standards in all facilities that house immigration detainees and hold facilities                         accountable for any violations.

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