Many detainees may have a valid defense — and at any rate have committed only administrative violations such as overstaying a visa or entering the country without authorization. Yet their cases are handled with a toxic mixture of secrecy and inattention to basic rights.
“This should not be part of the debate about illegal immigration,” the chairwoman, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, said of the bill, which she introduced late last week. “This is about whether the government is conducting itself according to the basic minimum standards of civilization.”Representative Lofgren cited the case of the case of Francisco Castaneda, a Salvadoran who testified at the hearing last fall that he was denied a biopsy for a painful lesion on his penis for 11 months while he was in detention as an illegal immigrant, despite his pleas and doctors’ recommendations. By the time he received the treatment he had been seeking, in February 2007, he was found to have metastasized penile cancer, records show; his penis had to be amputated.
He was released from detention after a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and died on Feb. 16 this year at age 36, leaving behind a 14-year-old daughter.
In March, a federal judge ruled that the government could be held liable in a lawsuit his family is pursuing. The federal government admitted medical negligence in the case last month.
On Tuesday, May 6, 2008, The New York Times published an editorial which accurately portrayed the Kafquaesque nature of the ICE detentions.
NY Times Editorial Death by Detention
May 6, 2008
It is shameful, though hardly a surprise, that they remain in the dark. There is no public system for tracking deaths in immigration custody, no requirement for independent investigations. Relatives and lawyers who want to unearth details of such tragedies have found the bureaucracy unresponsive and hostile. In the case of Mr. Bah, records were marked “proprietary information — not for distribution” by the Corrections Corporation of
, a private company that runs the America and many others under contract with the federal government. Elizabeth Detention Center
Secrecy and shockingly inadequate medical care are hardly the only problems with immigration detention. Immigrants taken into federal custody enter a world where many of the rights taken for granted by people charged with real crimes do not exist. Detainees have no right to legal representation. Many are unable to defend or explain themselves, or even to understand the charges against them, because they don’t speak English and lack access to lawyers or telephones.
As authorities at the federal and local level continue rounding up illegal immigrants in these harsh days of ever-stricter enforcement, the potential for abuse will continue to grow — largely out of sight. Although immigration law is every bit as complex as tax law — and the consequences for violators more dire — the detention system seems designed to sacrifice thoughtful deliberation and justice to expediency and swift deportation.
Many detainees may have a valid defense — and at any rate have committed only administrative violations such as overstaying a visa or entering the country without authorization. Yet their cases are handled with a toxic mixture of secrecy and inattention to basic rights. This mistreatment of a vulnerable population, which advocates for immigrants trace to the roundups of Muslims after 9/11 and the subsequent clamor for tougher immigration laws, is hostile to American values and disproportionate to the threat that these immigrants pose.
Congress has failed repeatedly to enact meaningful immigration reform, and the prospects in the next year or so are slim. It can act on this. The government urgently needs to bring the detention system up to basic standards of decency and fairness. That means lifting the veil on detention centers — particularly the private jails and the state prisons and county jails that take detainees under federal contracts — and holding them to the same enforceable standards that apply to prisons. It also means designing a system that is not a vast holding pen for ordinary people who pose no threat to public safety, like the 52-year-old tailor, Boubacar Bah.
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