U.S. To Overhaul Immigrant Detention Policy
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
Every year, Homeland Security rounds up nearly 400,000 immigrants on the grounds that they violated immigration laws. The government locks them up in jails and prisons while courts decide whether they should be deported. Today, the Obama administration said it's going to revamp the way it treats detainees who are awaiting deportation.
NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has reported on the harsh conditions where many of these immigrants are kept, and he joins us now to talk about the new proposals. Hi, Danny.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Hi, Madeleine.
BRAND: So, remind us, what's at stake here?
ZWERDLING: Well, here's what makes human rights groups so upset. First of all, the government does not detain these immigrants because they allegedly committed a crime. The government detains them because they allegedly violated civil laws, like overstaying a visa. Yet, the government puts these immigrants in jails with regular criminals, including people who've committed murders. And second, these jails are often horrendously overcrowded.
For instance, I visited a couple in Colorado and New Jersey. The immigrants were crammed together on triple bunk beds, almost no place to walk. Others had to sleep on thin mats on the floor. I found cases where the guards beat up the immigrants for no apparent reason, basically just for sadistic pleasure. And they beat some of these immigrants while they were handcuffed.
And dozens of immigrants have actually died in detention. In many cases, I found the evidence showed that they begged for medical care for days before they died and they couldn't get it. And, Madeleine, on top of all that, since the government does not detain these immigrants on criminal charges, they don't have a constitutional right to a lawyer. Remember that right?
So government officials have told me that 90 percent of the immigrants they detain never have a lawyer. So they can't really even challenge their own detention.
BRAND: So, a lot of harsh conditions, as you say. How does the Obama administration plan to change things?
ZWERDLING: It's actually kind of vague. The Homeland Security Department said today that they're going to reorganize the way they manage this system. They're going to hire a couple dozen more people to oversee conditions in the jails, like overcrowding. They're going to hire a few health care and medical specialists to monitor the medical treatment. They're going to form a couple of outside advisory boards to make recommendations.
BRAND: And what do the immigration rights groups say, the human rights groups say? Are they welcoming these changes?
ZWERDLING: Yes, but they're also sort of puzzled, because they say, look, the government has already had these kinds of inspectors and monitors for years. And the Justice Department and the American Bar Association actually worked out detailed standards years ago that say, look, here's how you should treat immigrants in detention. Here's how you should not treat them.
The problem has not been that there haven't been bodies to enforce them. The problem has been that the Bush administration did little or nothing to enforce those standards because critics say they didn't want to.
So the immigration specialists I talked to today say, look, if the Obama administration is finally going to enforce the standards that have been on the books for years, well, that's great. And maybe they have the political will to do that. But lawyers say the best way to make sure the jails treat immigrants humanely is to pass a law that requires it. Period.
BRAND: So, wait, there's no law that says treat detainees humanely?
ZWERDLING: No, absolutely not. The detention standards are legally just guidelines, you know, so nobody can actually force the government and the jails to obey them.
And now some members of Congress have introduced bills that would turn those standards into law. And I asked the Homeland Security spokesman today, will you support that? And he said, no. And I said, why? And he did not give me an answer.
BRAND: All right. Well, Danny, thank you very much.
ZWERDLING: Thank you.
BRAND: That's NPR's Danny Zwerdling.
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