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August 18, 2016

Department of Homeland Security Urged to End Use of Private Prisons for Immigration Detention

New York City—In the wake of the announcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that it will end its reliance on private prisons, Human Rights First today called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end the use of private and other immigration detention that is inconsistent with international human rights standards. 

“The Department of Homeland Security should follow today’s historic announcement by the Department of Justice and end its massive overuse of private and other detention for immigrants and asylum seekers in the many cases in which detention violates U.S. human rights and refugee protection legal commitments.” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer.  “Instead of relying on private prisons, or simply substituting with county and local jails, DHS should invest in smarter decisions up front to reduce the number of asylum seekers and immigrants unnecessarily sent into immigration detention, and make better release assessments so that individuals who are eligible for release on parole or bond are not needlessly held in detention facilities for many months at substantial fiscal and personal costs.”

Human Rights First notes that the use of immigration detention has risen sharply under the Obama Administration, with more asylum seekers sent to immigration detention, often being held there for months. Not only is the use of detention exceedingly expense, it is also not necessary in most cases.  For cases where additional support is needed to assure appearance for immigration appointments, immigration authorities can use alternative measures that rely on case management and community support. 

Last month Human Rights First released a new report detailing the increase in asylum seekers held in U.S. immigration detention facilities and the failure of the Obama Administration, specifically the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ), to effectively implement existing parole guidance for asylum seekers and reasonable bond levels for indigent individuals held in immigration detention.

The report, “Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers,” is based on months of in-depth research on detention practices and policies relating to adult asylum seekers. It shows that some Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and field offices disregard the 2009 asylum parole directive, which was issued by the Obama Administration. As detailed in the report, some local ICE offices have taken the position that asylum seekers are a top enforcement priority under DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s November 2014 memorandum, extending detention for many months even when asylum seekers meet the relevant parole or release criteria. Moreover, immigration judges, who often review ICE custody decisions and have the authority to release asylum seekers on conditional parole or bond, often fail to consider an individual’s ability to pay by setting prohibitively high bonds. 

The data analyzed in Human Rights First’s report shows that the number of asylum seekers held in detention has increased nearly threefold from 2010 to 2014 and parole grants for arriving asylum seekers have decreased from 80 percent to 47 percent from 2012 to 2015. In some cases, ICE has refused to release asylum seekers who sought protection at a U.S. border or port of entry by claiming that they are considered enforcement priorities and those asylum seekers who are sent to detention after requesting protection at U.S. airports or other formal ports of entry are not provided access to prompt immigration court custody hearings.

“Lifeline on Lockdown” also finds that when asylum seekers meet the criteria for release they often languish in detention for months due to an inability to pay the required bond. ICE and immigration courts have set bond rates—which range from $1,500 to $40,000 and above—that indigent individuals and families cannot afford. Some individuals resort to commercial bondsman and surety companies, which sometimes charge exorbitant rates or place their own GPS monitors on asylum seekers. 

“The Justice Department’s decision is a real wake-up call for DHS.  The agency should act immediately to end its reliance on mass incarceration of individuals in asylum and immigration proceedings,” noted Acer.

For more information or to speak with Acer, contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.