Washington, DC — During a briefing with members of Congress, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Detention Watch Network, Freedom for Immigrants, and the American Civil Liberties Union called for routine visits to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails in their districts and states. The coalition of organizations is calling this effort the “Eyes on ICE Detention Oversight Initiative,” and will be working with members of Congress to follow their visits with concrete actions to improve oversight and accountability of immigration detention centers.
As part of the initiative, three representatives already have conducted unscheduled visits to detention centers in their districts. Reps. Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon visited Berks County Residential Center Pennsylvania in July and met families who had been locked up after coming to the U.S. seeking asylum. Following the visit, Rep. Dean wrote in an op-ed in her local paper, “there was no reason for these people to be detained in the first place.” In August, Rep. Rashida Tlaib was denied access beyond the visitor room at Calhoun County Detention Center in Michigan when she arrived for an unannounced visit. She was only permitted to speak via phone through a glass window with immigrants held there; they told her they suffered from PTSD and had been denied medication, and that they had been forced to sleep on the floor.
“Members of Congress need to knock on the doors of Trump’s immigrant prisons, where thousands of people face life-threatening conditions. Surprise visits by Congress are a crucial check on ICE’s abuses,” said Naureen Shah, ACLU senior advocacy and policy counsel.
“ICE regularly lies and actively hides information from the public,” said Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network. “The need for unannounced facility visits is critical as the death toll in detention continues to rise. Abuse in ICE detention is rampant and the inspection process currently in place has been proven to be a sham designed to obscure actual conditions and perpetuate a culture of secrecy.”
Reports from advocates and the Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of the Inspector General document a range of abuses within ICE’s network of jails, including medical neglect that has led to death, retaliatory use of solitary confinement, barriers to legal access, rampant allegations of sexual assault, and spoiled or otherwise inedible food.
“We have seen time and time again, how ICE disregards immigrant lives and continually puts people in jeopardy while receiving increased funding with little oversight. In the absence of sufficient federal oversight, states like California have passed legislation to give state officials authority to monitor immigration detention facilities. It is beyond time for Congress to act, and we are grateful to the members of Congress joining us to hold ICE accountable for human and civil rights abuses,” said Sarah Gardiner, Director of Policy at Freedom for Immigrants.
The detention of immigrants has skyrocketed under the Trump administration, with average daily levels of ICE detention reaching over 50,000 — well above the already astronomical 45,000 Congress has appropriated for the agency. This increase in detention levels is accompanied by a parallel increase in funding. Since the beginning of the administration, Congress has increased funding for ICE by over a billion dollars. ICE also consistently spends above its Congressional allotment, and raids money from other government accounts to finance its detention and deportation machine.
“Immigration detention is not only costly and immoral, it is also uncessary. At the same time as members of Congress call for increased oversight for existing ICE jails and for reductions in detention, we need increased support for community-based alternatives to detention that allow communities and families to flourish and bring the United States in line with our international legal and moral obligations,” said National Immigrant Justice Center Policy Director Heidi Altman.