Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress mocked the Obama administration's plans to improve conditions for immigrants held in county jails and detention facilities Wednesday, saying that a raft of reforms written byU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement amounts to coddling lawbreakers.
In a hearing titled "Holiday on ICE," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, took aim at recent administrative changes designed to improve medical care for detainees, reduce incidents of sexual abuse, and increase access to safe water and outdoor recreation, among other reforms.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement made the changes after coming under fire from news reports, human rights groups and internal investigations for putting immigrants who have not been convicted of crimes in detention facilities plagued by sexual assaults and inadequate medical care.
Democrats on the committee took aim at the sarcastic title of the hearing, saying it belittled the serious issue of the agency's poor track record of ensuring the safety and health of detainees in custody. To help make that point, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) displayed graphic photographs depicting immigrants with fatal wounds and medical conditions that went untreated in detention facilities.
The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers Jr.of Michigan, had asked Smith to reconsider the title of the hearing. "I hope we can agree that the manner in which we treat immigrants in our detention facilities is not a laughing matter," Conyers wrote in a letter sent Tuesday.
Smith was undeterred.
"ICE has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants," he said during the opening minutes of the hearing. "While we would all like to be upgraded, we don't have the luxury of billing the American taxpayers or making federal law enforcement agents our concierge."
"Detention is no holiday," said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., who attended the hearing. "I think they should be embarrassed to describe people who are deprived of their liberty as if they were on vacation."
There are about 33,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers held in local and county jails and other detention facilities across the country, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many are waiting for an immigration judge to decide whether they will be deported. The numbers have surged dramatically from the mid-1990s, when the average daily population of immigration detainees hovered about 7,500.
The increased detainee population is in part a result of an aggressive enforcement effort by the Obama administration. Last year, 396,906 people were deported, a record number for the third consecutive year.
"I would like to be clear that no member is against the humane treatment of detainees," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). However, Gallegly portrayed the 400 pages of new detention standards made public in February as part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to put the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens and taxpayers.
The best way to help immigration detainees is to deport them more quickly, Gallegly said, "not to roll out the welcome mat at a posh detention facility."