The US President Could Roll Back Decades Of Progress That Made Immigrant Detention More Humane

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WASHINGTON ― Human rights advocates spent years fighting for even small improvements to the system that detains men, women and children waiting to be either deported or released back into the U.S. Now they fear the progress they have made could disappear under President Donald Trump, who has promised harsher treatment of undocumented immigrants.

“This administration is prepared to make conditions at immigrant detention even worse than they already are, which, given that for some people they’re already fatal, is terrifying,” said Mary Small, policy director of the advocacy group Detention Watch Network.

Trump’s Department of Homeland Security is considering looser regulations for new contracts with jails to hold immigrants in deportation proceedings, The New York Times reported earlier this month. That agreement would allow jails to treat immigrants detained for civil offenses the same way they treat people charged with crimes.

The department also plans to eliminate an office at Immigration and Customs Enforcement that focuses on improving the detention system and to ramp up detention and deportation efforts.

Trump’s boosters consider these to be good things ― earlier this month, hosts on “Fox & Friends” gleefully remarked that the “party’s over” at immigrant detention centers, grumbling about detainees being given clean sheets and outdoor recreation time.

In reality, immigrant detention centers ― some of which are inside jails facilities or former prisons ― are bleak places. Inmates report being denied medical care, held in solitary confinement, given inedible food and other mistreatment. This is all on top of the struggle of being locked up, often far from family and legal help.

There’s always a tension between ‘Do we get rid of the cage or do we make a better cage?’Ruthie Epstein, formerly of Human Rights First

The facilities are supposed to be for civil detention, not criminal detention like a prison ― being in the country without authorization is not in itself a crime. Advocates are concerned that the Trump administration’s discussion of new contracts for jails to detain immigrants is more proof that officials will disregard standards meant to make immigrant detention less punitive.

Chris Daley, an attorney with Just Detention International, said his group is “very afraid” those standards aren’t going to be enforced and that “we’re just going to lose any sense that folks are not there under criminal charges.”

None of these issues were resolved under former President Barack Obama, who oversaw record deportations during his first term and vastly expanded the use of family immigrant detention. But advocates also achieved some gains during his time in office, including increased oversight; policies that limited solitary confinement and transferring detainees; and a new Office of Detention Policy and Planning to oversee reforms.

In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, ICE made detention expert Dora Schriro the first director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning and tasked her with overhauling the immigrant detention system. She laid out recommendations for improvements on oversight and conditions, and ICE officials met with nongovernmental organizations regularly to discuss detention matters. Most of the advocates wanted to reduce immigrant detention rather than simply reform it, said Ruthie Epstein, who at the time worked on detention policy with the advocacy group Human Rights First.

“There’s always a tension between ‘Do we get rid of the cage or do we make a better cage?’” said Epstein, who now works for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “In the detention reform movement and prison reform movement there’s always that tension. I now see in retrospect even more clearly that the administration officials that we were communicating with were doing their best to figure out how to make the cage better.”

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