In a scathing report on the treatment of immigration detainees held in detention centers and more than 300 local facilities such as the Santa Clara County Jail, Amnesty International charges the federal government violates human rights by allowing tens of thousands of people to languish in custody every year without receiving hearings to determine whether their detention is warranted.
According to the 51-page report from the human rights group released today, the vast majority of the detainees have a hard time getting an attorney, some so desperate they ask to be deported even if they believe they're entitled to stay in this country.
"Officials are locking up thousands of human beings without due process and holding them in a system that is impossible to navigate,'' said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Reflective of a new administration trying to soften ICE's often-harsh reputation during the Bush era, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says Amnesty might have some good points.
"We do see reason for concern and are working hard to improve,'' said Cori Bassett, an ICE spokeswoman based in Washington, D.C. "We care deeply about a fair, humane system for folks in our custody.''
Much of the research for the report, titled "Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA,'' was done in the Bay Area, whose main facility for immigration detainees is the Santa Clara County Jail, where
nearly 200 such detainees are incarcerated.
Amnesty's criticism of the jail is relatively muted. The report's most serious complaint is that the jail commingles criminal inmates with immigration detainees - which Amnesty says is a violation of international standards because people in "civil administrative detention'' should be kept separate from criminals. Such commingling, however, is a common practice in the immigration detention system throughout the country.
Santa Clara County began housing immigration detainees in 2003 - and now depends on the income from its federal contracts with the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service as the county's budget gap grows. In the last fiscal year, which ended in October, the county received nearly $7 million from ICE.
ICE says about 40 percent of the people it incarcerates are "criminal aliens'' - a sweeping term that includes everyone from illegal immigrants awaiting deportation after finishing state prison sentences to legal permanent residents targeted for deportation because they've been convicted of serious traffic offenses. The remainder are undocumented immigrants, often picked up in immigration raids at workplaces and homes where immigration fugitives are suspected to be hiding.
The fact the county houses so many immigration detainees has generated little controversy over the years. "But I think that this report will raise a lot of eyebrows,'' said Blanca Alvarado, who recently stepped down as a county supervisor.
Last year, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS News found evidence of shoddy health care, secrecy, lax standards and inadequate staff in the detention system, where more than 400,000 people end up each year.
During the past decade the number of immigrants in detention each day has tripled from 10,000 in 1996 to more than 30,000 last year.
"It's easy to lock up someone, throw away the key and then make him prove that ICE is wrong,'' said Banafsheh Akhlaghi, director of Amnesty's Western regional office in San Francisco.
Amnesty says in the report that ICE increasingly relies on contracts with states and counties to house its detainees - two-thirds are now held in local and state facilities - and that the practice leads to abuses. Amnesty says oversight is "almost nonexistent.''
But Santa Clara County Jail officials say Amnesty seems to be off the mark on the "oversight'' point.
Edward Flores, chief of the county Department of Correction, said the main jail and the women's facility at Elmwood go through annual ICE inspections as well as monthly audits, and have "been found to be acceptable.''
Unlike criminal defendants, who are entitled to a free attorney if they cannot afford one, low-income immigrants usually have to depend on the kindness of pro-bono attorneys. The result is that more than 80 percent of immigration detainees lack a lawyer.
In the Bay Area, immigration detainees looking for free attorneys depend mostly on two groups: the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco and the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California-Davis School of Law. But those groups are inundated with requests.
Sin Yen Ling, who handles all of the immigrant detention cases for the Asian Law Caucus, said the group gets about five daily calls from detained immigrants and their relatives, but can only take a maximum of three cases per month.
Without representation, Amnesty says, many immigrants simply give up and return to their home countries, even if they feel they have a strong case that they're entitled to stay in the United States.