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Beverly Hills, California, United States
Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Detention Is No Holiday

New York Times (Opinion) by Edwidge Danticat: LAMAR SMITH, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is presiding over a hearing Wednesday on new guidelines for immigration detention that were issued last month and are now beginning to go into effect. The official (and facetious) title of the hearing is "Holiday on ICE," in reference to the more humane treatment undocumented immigrants should now receive after being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mr. Smith, a Republican from Texas, and members of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, which is holding the hearing, seem to think the United States is too nice to the immigrants it detains. We are being too generous in deciding to give them safe water, an hour a day of recreation, and off-site medical care if they are in danger of dying.

With draconian immigration laws spreading across the country, immigration detention is one of the fastest-growing forms of incarceration in the United States. There are more than 30,000 men, women and children in immigration custody, spread throughout jails as well as detention centers, some of which are outsourced to private companies. It is only fitting that ICE seek out more humane ways of treating this growing population.

The new ICE guidelines are not perfect. They do not offer, for example, alternatives to jail-like detention, even for unaccompanied minors, the elderly, the disabled or pregnant women. But they are a step forward. In addition to medical care, safe water and limited recreation, they also require that staff members not perform strip searches on detainees of the opposite sex and that detainees not be used for medical experiments or for clinical trials without informed consent. They will crack down on sexual assault by staff members, contract personnel or other detainees and suggest that victims of sexual abuse be given access to emergency medical treatment.

Clearly, these new standards are far from luxurious. They simply help protect basic human rights.

The flippant title of the hearing shows a blatant disregard for the more than 110 people who have died in immigration custody since 2003. One of them was my uncle Joseph, an 81-year-old throat cancer survivor who spoke with an artificial voice box. He arrived in Miami in October 2004 after fleeing an uprising in Haiti. He had a valid passport and visa, but when he requested political asylum, he was arrested and taken to the Krome detention center in Miami. His medications for high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate were taken away, and when he fell ill during a hearing, a Krome nurse accused him of faking his illness. When he was finally transported, in leg chains, to the prison ward of a nearby hospital, it was already too late. He died the next day.

My uncle's brief and deadly stay in the United States immigration system was no holiday. Detention was no holiday for Rosa Isela Contreras-Dominguez, who was 35 years old and pregnant when she died in immigration custody in Texas in 2007. She had a history of blood clots, and said her complaints regarding leg pains were ignored. It was no holiday for Mayra Soto, a California woman who was raped by an immigration officer. It was no holiday for Hiu Lui Ng, a 34-year-old Chinese immigrant with a fractured spine who was dragged on the floor and refused the use of a wheelchair in an ICE detention center in Rhode Island.

In October 2007 I testified at another Congressional hearing on immigration detention conditions, where I told my uncle's story. Also testifying was Francisco Castañeda, an immigrant from El Salvador. In 2006 he had been placed in a detention facility in San Diego, where he was refused treatment for a penile lesion and a lump in his groin. When he was eventually released from ICE custody, he had to have his cancerous penis amputated. A few months after giving his Congressional testimony, he died.

In May 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Hui v. Castañeda that public health officials in the detention system could not be held liable for failing to provide medical care to detainees like Mr. Castañeda and my uncle. This ruling further reduced the accountability for mistreatment. The new guidelines are a valuable gesture toward protecting detainees, but they are only guidelines, and they do not have the force of law behind them. Immigration facilities around the country can, and will, choose to interpret them any way they want, or ignore them altogether.

The "Holiday on ICE" hearing may just be a political stunt, but the message behind it is dangerous; it suggests that the 30,000 vulnerable people in our jails and detention centers should have little right to proper medical care, that their very lives are luxuries, and that it is not our responsibility to protect them.

Edwidge Danticat is the author, most recently, of the essay collection "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work."

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