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Dispatches: Silencing US Immigration Detainees

It was, at the very least, a case of suspicious timing. On July 27, the United States agency regulating immigration shut down a program allowing visitors to an Alabama immigration detention center not long after a complaint was filed alleging that the center’s officers were intimidating and physically abusing detainees.

The complaint had been brought by the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), which ran the visitation program. This is not the first instance of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shutting down a CIVIC-run program. There was the one in San Diego, shut down after CIVIC reported sexual abuse of detainees. Another in Broward County, Florida was also shuttered after the program’s coordinator testified about detention abuses during a congressional field hearing.

Immigrants aboard an ICE flight between Chicago and Harlingen, Texas, on May 25, 2010. © 2010 Associated Press

The facility this time was the Etowah County Detention Center, which holds about 700 people in total, 270 of them immigration detainees. According to Detention Watch Network, the facility is one of the 10 worst in the country.  

There’s no direct line between CIVIC filing its complaint and the termination of the visitation agreement. ICE has deferred the decision to terminate to the sheriff that runs the facility. A representative from the Sheriff’s Office has only said that the participants in the visitation program “overstepped their boundaries.”

One has to wonder what those boundaries are – and if they include reporting possible crimes.

It’s not like ICE should be surprised by complaints stemming from visits with detainees. Their claims of turning US immigration detention into a “truly civil” detention system notwithstanding, conditions of detention for immigrants are anything but civil. We’ve reported on sexual abuse in immigration detention, mistreatment of transgender detainees, and the toll of indefinite detention on children and their parents in detention.

Immigration detainees are not supposed to be held as punishment – the sole purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that a person participates in their immigration court proceedings. Many immigrants succeed at those proceedings, and leave detention to become lawful residents in the US – and eventually citizens.

But at Etowah, like other detention centers run by law enforcement rather than immigration officials, immigration detainees tend to be treated like criminals. In keeping with prison-style security, they can’t hug or even touch family members who come to visit them. They wear uniforms like prisoners do. And they are held in facilities designed mostly to prevent escapes, so they get little natural light.

They get treated like prisoners, and are sometimes abused. A visitation program can help shed light on those abuses.

ICE should know better than try to silence possible victims of abuse. The answer is not to shut down CIVIC. It’s to stop mistreating detainees. Step one: stop contracting with sheriffs, with jailors, to run immigration detention centers.


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