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“In a World of Prison Uniforms and Barbed Wire”: The New York Times on the Flawed Paradigm of U.S. Immigration Detention

December 6, 2011

Written by Annie Sovcik of Advocacy Counsel, Refugee Protection Program and reposted via human rights first blog

Today, in a powerful editorial, “A Broken and Dangerous System,” the New York Times describes how, despite a 2009 commitment to overhaul the immigration detention system, the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of the near 400,000 asylum seekers and other immigrants it detains annually – under civil authority – in jails and jail-like facilities across the country. It quotes a recent Human Rights First report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review,” which found that a full 50 percent of immigration detainees continue to be held in actual jails. And the government’s current plans for reform will lead to more appropriate conditions for less than 15 percent of detainees. “The rest,” notes the paper “will remain in a world of prison uniforms and barbed wire.”

Quoting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano’s statement in 2009, the New York Times concludes, “The paradigm is wrong.” The paper calls on DHS to “make good on its promises to reform its detention centers and to make far greater use of alternatives for people who pose no danger. Detainees should have more access to the courts to challenge their detention, and rigid laws that demand automatic or mandatory detention should be revised.”

This flawed paradigm of immigration detention costs American taxpayers more than $2 billion per year.

Human Rights First has been reporting for many years that the U.S. holds asylum seekers and other immigration detainees in conditions that are inappropriate, overly “penal” in nature, and without adequate due process safeguards in place to ensure that detention is not arbitrary or unnecessary.  In “Jails and Jumpsuits,” released in October, Human Rights First cites former prison officials and other corrections experts who confirm that less restrictive conditions in detention can actually help improve safety inside a facility and are a best practice in the corrections context, a finding echoed in multiple studies. The report outlines steps the Obama Administration should take to end its reliance on jails and jail-like facilities and improve due process safeguards to bring U.S. detention practices into compliance with international human rights standards.

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