Still getting press play: the planned overhaul of the immigration detention system announced by the Department of Homeland Security a couple of weeks ago. It’s an important story, one that affects hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their families every year, so we’re happy to see that the media is paying attention. Check out yesterday’s Washington Post editorial, “A Detention Mess,” which focuses on conditions inside the 350-plus jails and jail-like facilities housing immigrant detainees in the United States. It notes that such conditions range from “adequate” to “dirty, deplorable and dangerous,” and calls the detention system “an embarrassment for a nation that prides itself as a beacon of human rights.” DHS has acknowledged that immigration should be approached as a “civil” rather than a “penal” manner, and its reform plans would institute a certain level of oversight and accountability for inappropriate detention conditions.
The editorial correctly points out that the DHS plan, while welcome, does not go far enough. But the editorial, and DHS’s plan itself, is missing a crucial piece of the issue – the current system lacks effective due process safeguards to distinguish between those who may pose a risk of flight or danger and those who do not (i.e. those for whom detention may be unnecessary or inappropriate). This lack of basic due process protection leads many refugees seeking asylum in the United States to linger in detention for months or years as their claims to asylum are adjudicated. Meaningful detention reform must include a reform of policies and processes governing decisions to detain, parole, and release individuals – including asylum seekers – from immigration detention. Human Rights First has called for reform of the parole process for detained asylum seekers, and we have recommended that DHS work with the Department of Justice to provide all detained asylum seekers with access to custody hearings so that the need for their continued detention can be assessed by an immigration court. We have also recommended that DHS stop detaining asylum seekers in “penal” facilities, and create nationwide alternatives to detention. Without such reform, the immigration detention system will remain inconsistent with our country’s obligations to human rights – the beacon unlit.