"Holiday on ICE" is anything but, immigration lawyers charge

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On Mar. 28, the House Subcommittee on Immigration held a hearing entitled "Holiday on ICE" - which depicted the government's detention of hundreds of thousands of undocumented citizens in horrid conditions as a "vacation." The American Immigration Lawyers Association found this hearing disturbing, as it ignored the grim reality of the U.S. immigration detention system, which is marked by abuse.

"Immigrants have died while in detention because of neglect and lack of medical care," said AILA President Eleanor Pelta in a statement released yesterday. "The name of this hearing, in and of itself, is highly offensive and betrays both a clear lack of regard for the humanity of immigrant detainees, as well as a sense of contempt for basic human rights.

"To compare being kept in jail to a holiday is preposterous. There is something deeply wrong when a title like this is officially bestowed upon a congressional proceeding.

"It is imperative that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] roll out new standards as quickly as possible in every facility where immigration detainees are held. These standards must be fully implemented and rigorously monitored." Pelta referred in that statement to new standards issued last month by ICE, called the Performance Based National Detention Standards.

The prior lack of detention standards put forth by ICE had been exemplified over the past several years, during which there have been many news reports, investigative studies, and congressional hearings exposing severe flaws and mistreatment of undocumented citizens. Recent stories highlight sexual assault and abuse perpetrated by local guards and ICE agents.

But Pelta adds that the new standards are just "the first step toward ensuring that the treatment of immigrants in detention is safe and humane. It is not enough to have internal guidelines that can be changed with limited oversight. Standards must be codified and made enforceable."

To that end, AILA is supporting H.R. 933, the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act, which would establish minimum detention standards.

Moreover, AILA encourages President Obama to ensure that protections of the Prison Rape Elimination Act - enacted in 2003 - cover people who are held in detention facilities.

ICE is responsible for detaining over 400,000 individuals per year, AILA commented. This includes asylum seekers, trafficking victims, family members of documented U.S. citizens, the elderly, and the ill. Of those individuals - who are charged with civil violations of U.S. immigration law - most endure harsh conditions in jail-like facilities, where they often experience lack of medical care, sexual abuse, and assault while in the government's custody.

"Immigrants are one of the most vulnerable populations in detention," Pelta noted. "It makes no sense to exclude them from such vital protections. Congress passed PREA in 2003. We can't wait any longer for the protections Congress envisioned to take effect."

Photo: Tara Ammon Cohen, who was arrested on a drug charge and spent nearly three years locked up at a federal immigration detention center, reads with her son. Lui Kit Wong/AP Photos

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