On this Human Rights Day: Act on the Cries of Detained Immigrants for Dignity and Justice

On this Human Rights Day: Act on the Cries of Detained Immigrants for Dignity and Justice

JURIST Guest Columnists Shaunee Morgan and John Peng of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South discuss the need to recognize the growing violations surrounding detained immigrants on Human Rights Day…

Institutions and governments across the world will celebrate the 70th Human Rights Day on December 10, commemorating the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration forms the basis of core international human rights treaties to which the US is a signatory such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture. These documents codify fundamental rights on due process and bodily integrity, aligned with US constitutional protections. But while the international community prepares to celebrate the Declaration and the moment when the world came together around universal values of human rights, immigrants whose daily lived experiences are a far cry from the pronouncements and declarations of “rights” will wake up in Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers, two privately-owned and operated for-profit prisons in Georgia that house individuals in civil immigration proceedings.

Despite more than a decade of activism highlighting human rights violations at these detention centers (most recently the publication of a report, “Imprisoned Justice: Inside Georgia Immigrant Detention Centers” [PDF], by Project South and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to take action and the list of violations grows longer every year. Immigrants detained at Stewart and Irwin, their loved ones, and advocates continue to wonder if the tenets of human rights or even basic considerations of human decency have any meaning in these centers. Officials at both facilities regularly deny immigrants their right to meet with attorneys, even those with pre-scheduled meetings; employ lengthy terms of solitary confinement as a means to punish and control the detained immigrants; fail to ensure adequate temperature control within the facilities, forcing immigrants to wear jackets and blankets during the winter months; and refuse immigrants sufficient and appropriate meals and predictable meal times, among other rights violations.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has repeatedly denied requests to investigate organizational practices and policies at the detention centers. Even after highly publicized incidents such as the suicide of 27-year-old Jean Jimenez-Joseph, who had been held in solitary confinement for 19 days, ICE officials refused to review the systematic overuse of solitary confinement. Another man was placed in solitary confinement for 30 days for verbally complaining about the $1 per day immigrants are paid for their extensive labor. Wilhen Barrientos was held in solitary confinement for a week after reporting an incident of sexual assault and then again for 31 days, supposedly for having chickenpox, even though he had the disease as a child and was never given any medication during his confinement.

Extended solitary confinement can and does lead to prolonged and sometimes permanent negative socio-psychological and physical effects. In a recent study on the mental health consequences of solitary confinement, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Stanford University’s Mental Health Lab concluded that solitary confinement leads many to develop mood symptoms consistent with major depressive disorder and social estrangement. Juan Mendéz, former Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment for the United Nations Human Rights Council, likened periods of solitary confinement beyond 15 days to torture and noted that where “the prison regime of solitary confinement fail[s] to respect the inherent dignity of the human person and cause[s] severe mental and physical pain or suffering, it amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Despite international guidelines and ICE’s own detention standards that prohibit the regular and punitive use of solitary confinement, particularly for extended periods of time, solitary confinement continues unabated within Stewart and Irwin, and in immigrant detention centers and nationally.

Beyond the overuse of solitary confinement, Stewart and Irwin officials are inattentive and uncooperative to immigrants’ physical and medical needs. Nam Dieu, an elder Vietnamese immigrant detained at Stewart, is being refused access to medically-prescribed amounts of insulin to treat his diabetes. When concerned attorneys emailed ICE officials about increasing his insulin dosage, a local field officer replied that there was “no indication that he is not receiving appropriate medical care,” despite the fact that his blood sugar now hovers at a level signifying severe hyperglycemia.

On International Human Rights Day, as the world gathers in self-congratulatory praise and gratitude for its commitment to the preservation of fundamental human rights, let us remember that our humanity is judged not by the profundity of our messages but by how we live our stated values. Every violation at these centers should serve as a reminder of the work that remains for government officials at DHS and ICE to do in ensuring that protecting human rights becomes not just a cause for a celebration, but the norm.

The strength of the international human rights framework is the universality and inalienability of rights. In every moment and in every context, governments are obligated to respect and protect people’s rights, regardless of their migration status. The protection of human rights is even more important in remote places literally outside the purview of the public eye; places like Stewart and Irwin that are hundreds of miles away from the nearest metropolitan center. Seventy Georgia and national human rights organizations recently petitioned Georgia’s Congressional delegation [PDF] for a full investigation into the practices at Stewart and Irwin. Such an investigation would serve as an important first step toward realizing the promise of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which is a lofty but unfulfilled set of ideals if it has no relevance to the experiences of those in our society least able to access its protection.

Shaunee Morgan and John Peng are law student representatives of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets at @ashahshahani.

Suggested citation: Shaunee Morgan, John Peng, and Azadeh Shahshahani On this Human Rights Day: Act on the Cries of Detained Immigrants for Dignity and Justice , JURIST – Professional Commentary, Dec. 10, 2017, http://jurist.org/dateline/2017/08/Azadeh Shahshahani-human rights-detained-immigrants.php


This article was prepared for publication by Krista Grobelny, Section Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions ot comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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.