ICE protest

Laura Julney speaks outside of Bergen County Justice Center after marching from Bergen County Jail, where ICE detainees were previously held in Hackensack, New Jersey on November 13, 2021. (Photo: Hilary Swift/for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Demand Biden Close 'Inhumane' ICE Detention Centers

"We urge you to recognize that our shared values of humanity and compassion require the dismantling of our system of mass immigrant detention."

Over 100 rights organizations on Monday pressured U.S. President Joe Biden to end the mass detention of migrants, describing the practice as inhumane, unjust, unnecessary, and fiscally irresponsible.

"Inhumane conditions and treatment are rife across the immigrant detention system."

"We urge you to recognize that our shared values of humanity and compassion require the dismantling of our system of mass immigrant detention," 114 groups wrote in a letter to the president. "In particular, we urge you to support the closure of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention sites, prevent the development of new detention sites or expansion of existing ones, and seek reduced funding for immigration detention from Congress."

While emphasizing that "inhumane conditions and treatment are rife across the immigrant detention system," the organizations highlighted some examples of abuse documented at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities across the country.

At Baker County Detention Center in Florida, "people have been pepper-sprayed while already pinned down or confined and targeted with anti-Black racial slurs and harassment," the letter states. "Women at Baker have endured humiliation--such as being denied sanitary napkins and clean clothes, forcing them to sleep in blood-soaked sheets."

The letter adds that at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, "women have been forced to engage in sexual contact with a staff member, blocked from leaving medical exam rooms, and forced or coerced into giving access to intimate parts of their bodies without medical justification."

"Now is the time for principled leadership following the long-awaited court ruling lifting the Title 42 public health expulsion order," the groups asserted. "As your administration stands up processing of individuals, we urge you to not fall back on harmful, arbitrary, and unnecessary detention in response to people seeking protection."

The lead attorney for the ACLU's challenge to Title 42 called the federal court decision striking it down "a huge victory... that literally has life-and-death stakes." Last week also saw a Senate hearing and report confirming the "systematic medical abuse" of migrant women in ICE detention as well as former President Donald Trump announcing that he is running again in 2024.

Trump's administration was globally condemned for its "unethical, ineffective, and inhumane" policies, particularly forcibly separating migrant families. Critics have argued that despite his campaign promises, "Biden looks a lot like Trump on border issues," especially on Title 42.

"Biden positioned himself as a clear counterpoint to Trump's cruelty but instead, Biden is carrying on business as usual, breaking promises and tearing apart communities," declared Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at Detention Watch Network, one of the groups behind the new letter.

"It is urgent for Biden to act boldly to rebuke white supremacy by protecting and welcoming immigrants in the next two years of his administration," Ghandehari argued. "Detention is inhumane, morally and financially costly, and completely unnecessary."

Andrea Carcamo, policy director at Freedom for Immigrants, similarly stressed that "immigration detention is animated by racism, xenophobia, and hate--the very forces President Biden vowed to fight against upon taking the White House."

"Instead, Biden has overseen a dramatic increase in the use of immigration detention since taking office," Carcamo said. "This administration has utterly failed our communities who continue to be subject to abhorrent human rights abuses inside detention. It's clear that immigration detention is beyond the reach of reform, which is why we demand Biden close detention centers and free people back to the love and safety of their communities."

The letter points out that while the whole system is problematic, "private prison companies are some of the biggest beneficiaries of mass immigrant detention, and have pocketed hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars from ICE contracts, many of which include wasteful contract terms."

"People navigating their immigration cases should be able to do so alongside their families and communities."

"Just as you took bold action to phase out the Department of Justice's private prison contracts, we urge you to act decisively on immigrant detention sites--the vast majority of which are run by private prison companies--as a first step towards ending mass immigration incarceration," the groups wrote. "You have voiced a desire to do just that, and it is not too late."

"Continuing to invest billions of dollars in immigration jails and detention centers is fiscally irresponsible and deprives newcomers arriving to the United States of dignity and access to due process," the letter argues. "We urge you to, instead, invest taxpayer dollars in our communities by supporting nonprofit organizations providing community-based support services to those navigating the immigration court system."

According to Sirine Shebaya, executive director at the National Immigration Project, another letter signatory, "People navigating their immigration cases should be able to do so alongside their families and communities--not behind bars or while being surveilled by ICE."

Heidi Altman's group, National Immigrant Justice Center, not only signed the letter, but also "regularly files civil rights complaints on behalf of our clients who endure solitary confinement, medical negligence, and blatant harassment and abuse in ICE detention on a daily basis."

"The Biden administration can no longer continue to blindly operate a system that is inherently cruel," she said. "The time to act is now."

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