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Civil Rights Comm. hammers immigration authorities on family detention
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Civil Rights Comm. hammers immigration authorities on family detention

In a scathing report released Thursday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said it found evidence that immigration officials were interfering with the constitutional rights of families in detention, and called on Homeland Security to immediately release them. 

In the 478-page report, the federal commission noted significant problems with family detention centers, including a lack of access to legal counsel, bad food, and that some detention facilities "failed to comply with DHS standards for medical care, ignoring serious medical conditions." 

"Detention of immigrants is necessary in some cases. Arbitrary detention is not," wrote David Kladney, one of the commissioners who compiled the report. 

"Allowing conditions that cut off immigrants' access to their lawyers, conditions of overcrowding, inadequate food, cold temperatures in living quarters, and detaining people without regard to their required security status are useless, punitive and not necessary," Kladney wrote. 

The commission also noted that it had received reports that children were abused in the custody of federal agents, and it reiterated claims that families faced poor conditions while they were held by Customs and Border Protection.

The report's finding came as no surprise to James Lyall, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

"The commission's findings of inhumane and unconstitutional detention conditions in U.S. immigration facilities are entirely consistent with what countless immigrants, advocates, and other governmental and non-governmental sources have been reporting for years," Lyall wrote.

In June, the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security.

The suit argues that immigrants were routinely held for more than 24 hours in temporary facilities along the southwestern border, including stations in Tucson and Nogales, breaking the agency's own policies. The suit also contents that immigrants were put in freezing, overcrowded cells without access to food, water, medical care and legal council.

Similar issues were repeated by the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, a public health organization based in Tucson, which found widespread mistreatment of Central American and Mexican immigrant families by Border Patrol agents.

While the agency dealt with a massive influx of family units and unaccompanied minors from May to July 2014, the problems appear to go further back. 

In 2012, Amnesty International released "In Hostile Terrain" and No More Deaths produced "Culture of Cruelty," which collected information from 2008 to 2011. 

"We support the report and we agree with its findings," said Lindsay Harris, a legal fellow with the American Immigration Council, who works with immigrant families at the detention center in Dilley, Texas. "This isn't the average population of people, instead it's a vulnerable population arriving with trauma from their journey." 

"They're coming here with physical and mental health challenges that the incarcerated system is not built to deal with," Harris said. Harris said she and other fellows have submitted complaints about the lack of medicine and care at Dilley, but have not received a response.

TucsonSentinel.com asked for a comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but was told that Homeland Security would be responding to the report. 

Marsha Catron, press secretary for DHS, said the agency was reviewing the commission's report.

"DHS takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. The Department is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in our all of our centers have the proper care and appropriate resources, that they are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that their civil and due process rights are respected" Catron said. "We have consistently improved and updated our standards and policies to reflect this commitment."

Catran also said the agency had made significant changes to family residential facilities and was transitioning the facilities into short-term processing centers. Families that can establish credible or reasonable fear of return to their countries will be released under conditions to "ensure their compliance with their immigration obligations."

Family detention became a major issue last year, when an influx of Central American and Mexican families, along with large numbers of unaccompanied minors coming through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas overwhelmed immigration authorities. 

By the end of fiscal 2014, nearly 63,000 unaccompanied minors, some as young as 2-years old, came into the United States. The shift prompted a massive response by DHS, which included flying unaccompanied minors to Tucson where they were bused to Nogales for processing before sent on to officials with Health and Human Services and families and sponsors throughout the United States. 

At the same time, nearly 63,000 people in family units also came into DHS custody, prompting Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to issue a public statement, saying that both groups would be deported. 

"Those who cross our border illegally must know there is no safe passage, and no free pass," Johnson said. "Within the confines of our laws, our values, and our resources, they will be sent back to their home countries." 

In June, Johnson headed calls from Congressional Democrats to release immigrant families, and announced that families who entered the country illegally would be released after they've established their eligibility for asylum.

However, a lack of immigration judges and lawyers has stymied the return of thousands of immigrants back to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The current backlog for immigration cases in U.S. courts has reached an all-time high of 635 days, according to data complied by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Moreover, data from TRAC shows that in asylum cases, immigrants who have access to a lawyer are 14 times as likely to win their case. 

At the same time, federal officials are under also facing a tight deadline. On Aug. 22, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the federal government to promptly release children held at family immigration detention facilities, giving immigration authorities until Oct. 23 to comply with her order. 

"We support family detention. It's essential, otherwise you're going to have people show up in the country and then disappear into the general population," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Federation for Immigration Reform, who said immigrants should get a "swift adjudication of their claims." 

"The system is overwhelmed and the sheer number of people who are making asylum claims has just put this system in jeopardy," Mehlman said. 

In a dissenting opinion, commission member Gail Heriot wrote that the group went into the project "intent on uncovering a scandal." 

"It is said that where there is smoke, there is fire. But sometimes where there is smoke, there is only a smoke-making machine, busily stoked by publicists working for activist organizations," Heriot wrote. "When the Commission fails to take its fact-finding mission seriously, it runs the risk of becoming part of such a smoke-making apparatus."

Grijalva files bill to ban private prisons, end family dention and head-count mandate

Following the release of the commission's report, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva introduced legislation that would ban private prisons, end family detention, and rescind a daily mandate for ICE to fill 34,000 beds with detainees. 

The Justice is Not For Sale Act would also require ICE to use alternatives to detention, rescind a controversial mandate that requires ICE to fill 34,000 beds each day with detainees, and add oversight to privately-run prisons to keep contracted prisons for "overcharging inmates and their families for services like banking and telephone calls." 

"Treating detainees as a means to a profit margin incentivizes jailors to lobby for ever more inmates, and ensures those inmates are denied even the basic staples they're entitled to," Grijalva said in a news release. "The result is a corrections system collapsing under its own weight as the prison industry gets rich and countless innocent men, women and children are ensnared in their trap."

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