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Immigration: ACLU alleges rights violations at detention centers

May 16, 2012|By Richard Fausset
  • Visitors arrive to see a family member held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. The ACLU alleges that substandard conditions exist at Stewart and other detention centers in Georgia.
Visitors arrive to see a family member held at the Stewart Detention Center… (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles…)

ATLANTA — Suspected illegal immigrants in Georgia are suffering from a “systemic violation ... of civil and human rights” during their confinement in “substandard” federal immigration detention facilities, including Stewart Detention Center, the largest of its kind in the nation, according to a new report by the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The 182-page report, released Wednesday, immediately added fuel to the hot-burning debate over illegal immigration in this Deep South state, where the presence of an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants — the seventh-largest population in the nation — has transformed large swaths of both cities and countryside.

D.A. King, a prominent supporter of stricter illegal immigration policies here, dismissed the document as a “pseudo-report” that relied too heavily on the testimony of detainees, who, by the nature of their circumstances, would tend to be in a complaining mood.

King, president of the activist group the Dustin Inman Society, added in an interview that the ACLU “is leading the anti-enforcement charge here in Georgia.... Their goal here is to stop any enforcement of U.S. immigration law.”

Officials from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and an attorney for Detention Management LLC, the owner of the Irwin Center, did not respond to queries about the investigation.

But Steve Owen, a spokesman for the Corrections Corp. of America, which operates Stewart and the North Georgia Detention Center, called the report an “unfortunate example of the lack of seriousness with which ACLU lawyers approach the very real and practical challenges our nation faces in safely, humanely and cost effectively housing our immigrant detainee population.”

Owen said in an interview that the ACLU ignored or underplayed CCA responses to some of the criticisms of its facility. Those responses argued that the facilities featured clean cells, with a “robust and effective” grievance process at Stewart. The company also argued that some of the allegations were unsubstantiated or incorrect.

For Anton Flores-Maisonet, co-founder of Alterna, a Georgia-based immigrant rights ministry, the report bolstered his long-standing contention that suspected illegal immigrants in federal detention centers were being treated like criminals, or worse, when in fact many of them were guilty of violating only civil immigration statutes.

“I think every American, regardless of how knowledgeable they are about the complexities of our broken immigration system, should be able to agree to some codified, basic human rights minimums as to what we do with individuals we've chosen to detain for immigration purposes,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

The report, “Prisoners of Profit,” was based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as tours and interviews at Georgia's four federal immigration facilities.

Three of those facilities, including the 1,750-bed Stewart Detention Center, are run by private corporations. The report challenges the wisdom of the private model, alleging the “systemic violation of immigrant detainees’ civil and human rights while detained in substandard prison-like conditions ill suited for civil detainees.”

The report highlights a number of instances in which detainees were allegedly coerced by staffers at the centers into signing “Stipulated Orders of Removal,” which allow them to be deported without a court hearing.

In some cases, guards at the jails allegedly screamed at and threatened immigrants who would not sign the orders. In two cases, a officer allegedly physically forced immigrants to sign.

The report also alleges that detainees are not given information about pro bono legal services, denied adequate medical care, and subject to regulations that could violate attorney-client confidentiality rights.

Hygiene was also a concern: At the privately run Irwin County Detention Center, female detainees are provided with used underwear and, in at least one case, a woman was given “soiled” underwear, causing her to suffer from an infection that left her legs and genitals scarred, according to the report.

Last year, Georgia passed a tough illegal immigration crackdown law, but parts of it are on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court renders a decision on a similar law passed in Arizona in 2010.

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