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CALIFORNIA: A Response to Immigration Detention

Christina Fialho, Santa Clara Law '12, is an immigrant rights advocate and co-founder of the Detention Dialogues, a graduate student-led organization affiliated with Detention Watch Network. Christina writes about the detention of non-criminal immigrants in US jails...

Behind razor-sharp barbed wire fences and inside cement-block buildings, reality is harsher, confusion greater and the future dauntingly lonely. The detention of immigrants in the United States raises serious ethical concerns about their treatment and our responsibility as global citizens. As a law student and immigrant rights advocate, I joined a national movement in early August 2010 through the Detention Watch Network to respond to these ethical concerns. My contribution to the movement focused on developing a volunteer-run immigration detention visitation program in Northern California called Detention Dialogues.

The impetus for this program came from my work this past summer as a Research Fellow for the Global Detention Project (GDP) in Geneva, Switzerland. While there, I conducted legal and policy research on migration-related administrative detention and discovered that countries all over the world are expanding the detention of migrants.

For example, the total detention capacity in France was 1,724 in 2007 compared to 739 in 2003, according to GDP research. Since 2007, Poland has increased its migration-related detention capacity from one facility to at least six. This coincided with Poland's rise as a key frontier state of the European Union's Schengen border-free zone. The Asia Pacific region is similar. For instance, GDP has identified 17 immigration detention facilities in Malaysia holding approximately 10,136 people. African countries also detain migrants.One example is Libya, which has a reported 27 distinct immigration detention facilities.

Most of my summer research focused on the United States and Brazil, two countries with vastly different policies on immigration and detention. I found that while Brazil does not maintain dedicated facilities to hold immigrants in administrative detention, immigrants are detained, though rarely, in at least 3 jails throughout the country. Contrast this with the United States, which maintains the largest detention infrastructure in the world, detaining approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody in 2009 at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion.

Immigrants in the United States are detained in approximately eight service processing centers owned and operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); seven contract detention facilities owned and operated by private-sector businesses on behalf of ICE; and more than 350 state and local government facilities through intergovernmental service agreements. (See the report [PDF] by the U.S. Department of Justice for details.) Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have issued countless reports explaining how asylum seekers, individuals with severe mental disabilities, and even victims of human trafficking have been detained in our nation's jails. Many have been detained for months and some for years despite the fact that immigration detention is a civil form of custody, not criminal punishment.

While drafting a working paper on US immigration detention for the Global Detention Project, I asked: Do countries have an ethical obligation to do the least harm to migrants when establishing and enforcing their immigration laws? Is detention a proper means of immigration control? What are the social costs of detaining people for profit, especially when detention is outsourced to private-sector businesses? What are the social costs of immigration detention to family unity and to communities?

Detention Dialogues, co-founded by Christina Mansfield and myself, seeks to address only a small portion of these concerns. Like other visitation programs in the United States and abroad, we have much work to do, not only in educating our community about the effects of immigration detention, but also in providing support to individuals in detention. I recently spoke with Sabrina*, an eighteen-year-old college student from Northern California. Her experience confirmed my desire to build awareness in my community of immigrants' legal rights in detention and to provide support to those persons already detained.

Ethnically Chinese, Sabrina was born in Mexico and brought to the United States by her parents when she was only 8 years old. She is an honors student, a campus leader, and actively involved in her community. During Summer 2010, ICE conducted a raid on Sabrina's home. ICE chose not to arrest Sabrina because she was attending college, but the seven ICE officers arrested her undocumented father and took him to a detention facility. Sabrina's father has no criminal record.

With limited English language skills, Sabrina's father did not fully comprehend the implication of signing a stipulated order of removal form. Typically, when an immigrant is in administrative detention, he or she has the right to find a lawyer and appear before a judge to seek relief to stay in the United States. However, when an immigrant signs a stipulated order of removal, he or she waives the right to a hearing before a judge and agrees to immediate deportation. Sabrina's father signed this form and, within hours, was deported to Mexico.

Advocates routinely encounter immigrants who do not understand that they signed these orders. According to a shadow report prepared by the ACLU for the United Nations, federal agents have pressured detained immigrants to sign stipulated orders even though many of these immigrants have claims to remain in the United States.

Moreover, most of these immigrants have no criminal record. The National Immigrant Justice Center, through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, collected data showing that eighty-five percent of detainees who sign stipulated orders of removal have no criminal record. In other words, they are detained on a single civil charge because they entered the United States without inspection or overstayed a visa.

Most individuals who remain in detention awaiting a hearing will never speak with a lawyer. According to a 2010 study [PDF] conducted by the American Bar Association, approximately 84% of immigration detainees lack attorney representation. Many will never even visit with a friend from the outside. While visitors cannot fill the role of an attorney, they can help detainees cope with stress and fear as well as gather documents to support the detainees' applications for relief. Sadly, frequent transfers between facilities and high telephone rates impair detainees' ability to maintain communication with the outside, and many jails restrict visitation to 30 minutes on select days of the week.

Detention Dialogues seeks to provide support to families like Sabrina's so that immigrants know their rights prior to an ICE raid or detention. We also hope to become an official outreach program of one of Northern California's jails by early 2011, matching detainees without family or friends in Northern California with volunteers who would visit them for a sustained, one-to-one relationship. In February 2011, we will conduct our first volunteer training led by Grisel Ruiz, this year's Sutro Fellow at the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic. I hope that as more Americans realize what goes on behind prison walls, they will join us in urging the United States to seek alternatives to immigration detention.

*Name has been changed to protect the undocumented.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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About Student Commentary

Student Commentary publishes accounts of law students' first-hand experience with law and law-related events. Student Commentary contributors come from all over the world, sharing personal stories on legal matters ranging from the G-20 summit protests in the US to the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan.

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