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Citing Abuses, US Commission Demands Release of Refugee Families

Panel of White House and Congressional appointees urges Obama administration to release family detainees

Concerned Texans protest Karnes Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas over reports of sexual assaults at the facility on January 22, 2015. (Photo: WeAreUltraViolet/flickr/cc)

With the media spotlight on the refugee crisis in Europe, a new report from a federal government-appointed commission finds that, on U.S. soil, people displaced by violence and poverty in predominantly Latin American countries are being forced into "detention centers" that are plagued with human rights abuses.

The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights argues that the violations—which include denial of food and medical care, lack of due process, and allegations of sexual assault—are so egregious that all families should be released, detentions reduced, and alternatives to incarceration fostered.

"All people, no matter whether they are immigrants or asylum-seekers, deserve to be treated as humans," said Martin R. Castro, USCCR Chair. "Now, more than ever before, we need to treat fairly and humanely those persons, especially women and children, who are seeking sanctuary from violence and instability in their countries."

Castro is one of four appointees of President Barack Obama who sit on the commission alongside four Congressional appointees. The panel based its findings on hearings held in May, as well as visits to two Texas immigrant detention centers.

One of these facilities, the adult Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, is run by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) but hires subcontractors internally, including for "security." The other is a family detention center in Karnes City, Texas which is operated by the notorious private prison company GEO Group. Karnes is the site of long-term organizing and numerous hunger strikes led by mothers locked up with their children to protest their inhumane conditions of confinement.

The commission's report describes brutal conditions, in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—many of whom hail from Central America—are treated like criminals and stripped of their basic rights.

"While these immigrants migrate to the United States to escape harsh living conditions, once they cross the U.S. border without authorization and proper documentation, the federal government apprehends and detains these individuals in conditions that are similar, if not worse, than the conditions they faced from their home countries," the report declares.

In a statement accompanying the report, the commission summarizes its findings:

  • Certain Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-operated and contracted detention centers are not complying with 2011 detention standards intended to promote humane treatment of detainees.
  • By continuing to detain unaccompanied children and families, DHS is not complying with the District Count decision in California on the Flores Settlement Agreement.
  • DHS [Department of Homeland Security] is not respecting the civil rights and due process rights of detainees.
  • DHS does not sufficiently protect detainees from sexual assault and abuse and needs to come into full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The report was approved by a commission vote of 5-2. Three of the "yes" votes were from appointees of Obama—who has overseen the mass detentions of immigrant communities and families. Bob Libal, executive director of the advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership, told Common Dreams that such detentions have occurred on a scale "we haven't seen since Japanese internment."

Many have argued that U.S. policies of detention are especially unjust, given the role of the U.S. in driving the economic and political conditions displacing people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and other countries. Observers, including Libal, attribute much of the growing public attention on abuses at family and adult detention centers to the organizing and protest of people on the inside, from Texas to Washington.

And indeed, the issue appears to be gaining traction, including from within Congress. On Thursday, lawmakers including 2016 presidential hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I) and Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) introduced a bill to ban private prisons, end family detentions, eliminate immigrant detention quota, and reinstate the federal parole system.

Libal said he strongly supports Thursday's "Justice Is Not for Sale" legislation but emphasized: "It shouldn't take an act of Congress to get this done. The president can and should act immediately, particularly on family detention. He should release families."

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