The federal government routinely failed to follow its own standards regulating immigration detention centers across the country, denying detainees sufficient recreation time and adequate access to attorneys, legal materials and telephones, according to a new report issued Tuesday.
As a result of the widespread violations, hundreds of thousands of detainees faced tremendous challenges in making their case to stay in the U.S. and were frequently denied basic due process rights, according to the report.
"The findings in our report raise serious doubts as to whether the hundreds of thousands of immigrants detained each year get a fair shot at justice," said one of the authors, Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center.
The report is based primarily on thousands of pages of reviews conducted by customs officials from 2001 to 2005, turned over by court order in a legal case. The authors also studied reviews of detention centers by the American Bar Assn. and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In California, detainees are held in a private facility in San Diego, a government-run center in El Centro and at 13 local jails throughout the state. The report covered several of those centers, as well as one in San Pedro that closed in 2007 for repairs and has not reopened. The authors noted violations of the standards for legal and family visits at both San Pedro and a Lancaster facility run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept.
Among the findings were that at least 41 facilities did not give detainees the minimum number of hours and days of recreation required by the standards and that 19 centers did not offer any outdoor recreation time. The report also found deficiencies in access to phones and legal information. For example, at least 29 detention facilities had no law library, and 30 centers failed to provide reasonable privacy for legal calls. In addition, detainees were often placed in solitary confinement without justification.
Dora Schriro, special advisor to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said the report was careful and impressive but also dated, with half of the reviews predating the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2003. Since then, she said, the government has increased oversight of the centers' day-to-day operations and compliance with the standards.
Nevertheless, Schriro said, there are still areas of the immigration detention system that need to be improved. "Where there are opportunities to improve the current system we are clearly committed to making those changes," she said.
At the same time, Schriro said, she is in the process of assessing the immigration detention system as a whole, visiting centers throughout the nation and determining what should be reformed.
The authors said the expansion of immigration detention in recent years contributed to the failures. There are more than 31,000 immigration detainees, up from about 20,000 in early 2006. The immigration enforcement agency has been criticized by legislators, advocates and judges for problems at the detention centers.
"These problems have been exacerbated by the growth in detention," Tumlin said. "What we have is a monster immigration detention system that is woefully unregulated."
Tumlin said the same problems cited between 2001 and 2005 persist. She said she believes the standards are so frequently violated because they are not enforceable.
The government updated its standards in 2008, but they are still not legally binding. The report recommends that either Congress or the Obama administration make the standards into law.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) introduced legislation in February that would do just that. The Department of Homeland Security plans to announce changes to the immigration detention system in coming months.
Luis Enrique Guzman, who was detained from 2006 to 2008 in several immigration centers in Southern California, called the conditions "terrible" and said the center staff frequently violated his civil rights. Guzman said he was beaten while in detention and placed in segregation because he worked to organize detainees.
He also said his legal materials were taken from his cell. Guzman later won his immigration case.
The report, co-written with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the law firm of Holland & Knight, also recommended that the government add training on detention standards, penalize centers that don't comply and promote uniformity across the facilities.