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Increasing numbers of immigrants are being incarcerated as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) attempts to fulfill the provisions of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Faced with an overwhelming, immediate demand for detention space, the INS housed more than half the immigrants in its custody in 1998 in local jails around the country. These facilities are entirely inappropriate given the immigrants' non-criminal status and the jails' punitive and rehabilitative nature, since INS detainees are simply awaiting immigration hearings or deportation.

During an eighteen-month investigation into conditions and treatment at the jails used by the INS, Human Rights Watch found that INS detainees in jails are subjected to physical mistreatment, are not provided with basic medical care, are often unable to communicate with jail staff due to language barriers, and are subjected to severe restrictions on contact with families, friends, and legal representatives—when, in the minority of cases, detainees are able to obtain legal counsel.

In its September 1998 report,Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States, Human Rights Watch called on the INS to end its use of jails to hold immigration detainees. Until the INS stops using jails to house its detainees, all INS detainees should be held in separate sections in jails. Human Rights Watch also calls for INS detention guidelines for jails and for a humane, consistent parole policy for detainees held indefinitely. In April 1999, the INS announced a new mandatory review policy for long-term detainees that may provide some relief for those held indefinitely.

Asylum seekers, who should be detained only in exceptional circumstances, are sent to remote jails without consideration of their particular needs. Asylum cases require specialized attorneys who are rarely available in small towns where asylum seekers may be jailed. The punitive nature of jails is entirely inappropriate for those who have fled persecution, often at the hands of law enforcement officials in their own countries. Jails also lack medical and psychological services asylum seekers require.

In its initial response to press reports about our study, the INS ignored our major findings and instead described the criminal backgrounds of some of the detainees mentioned in the report. The agency seemed to be arguing that some of the detainees deserved inhumane and inappropriate treatment because they had previously been convicted of crimes (and had already served their sentences).

A more enlightened INS response came in the form of conditions placed on contracts with jails. For the first time, the INS was requiring the jails where its detainees are housed to meet some minimum requirements. Unfortunately, given the detention space crisis, there was no real threat of any jail losing its contract to hold the INS detainees. No INS monitoring provisions -- to ensure that the conditions were being met -- was contemplated.

What you can do:

- Urge the INS to create detention standards as regulations that are enforceable for jails and its own Service Processing Centers and contract facilities;

- Urge the INS to detain asylum seekers only in exceptional cases and never to detain them in local jails;

- Call on the INS to sever contracts with jails when they fail to meet basic standards regarding humane treatment; and

- Call on the INS to create an Advisory Commission on Immigration Detention, made up of governmental and nongovernmental representatives, to review jail compliance with INS guidelines requiring humane treatment and to help identify and address facilities with particular problems or specific trends in abuse.

Write to:
Commissioner Doris Meissner
Immigration and Naturalization Service
Washington, DC 20536

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