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New Bill Seeks Reform of Country's Immigration Detention System

The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would attempt to address standards and accountability for detention centers across the country, among other issues.
Image: ICE Raids
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers arrest a suspect during a pre-dawn raid on January 17, 2007 in Santa Ana, California.Mark Avery / AP file

A bill to reform the country's immigration detention system was introduced this week in the House of Representatives.

The measure, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, was introduced by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Adam Smith (D-Washington), and is co-sponsored by more than three dozen other members of Congress.

“This bill is incredibly important for [Asian Pacific Islander] immigrants,” Jayapal told NBC News. “Detention and deportation is sometimes classified as a Latino problem and it’s just a misconception because increasingly we see APIs being detained across the country from just about every community.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks at a Congressional Tri-Caucus news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, on injustice and inequality in America.Andrew Harnik / AP

The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would attempt to address standards and accountability for detention centers across the country, phase out private detention centers over a three-year period, have detention facilities be managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and reduce the number of people in detention centers, Jayapal said.

More than three dozen civil society organizations have thrown their support behind the bill, including the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and Colectiva Legal del Pueblo. Staff from both organizations said they serve clients who have experienced “inhumane” treatment at immigration detention facilities, such as a lack of a means to express grievances and poor health care.

“We think that this legislation is a good step in trying to address a number of these conditions within detention centers … and also in making sure that the U.S. government isn’t detaining people primarily because of past crimes that they already served their time for,” Katrina Dizon Mariategue, immigration policy manager at SEARAC, told NBC News. “We basically don’t think detention resources should be used on detaining people that are not a threat to their community, even if they do have a former criminal conviction.”

More than 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have been issued final orders of removal since 1998, but because of the relationship the United States has with Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, many are detained for long periods of time. Cambodia accepts a limited number of individuals per year; Vietnam only accepts deportees who came to the United States after 1995; Laos doesn't have a formal policy for accepting deportees.

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Victoria Mena, policy director at Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, a Washington state-based organization dedicated to migrant justice, said the group supports the measure because it would increase transparency, oversight, and accountability in the immigration detention system, which would benefit Latinos, who make up the majority of detainees.

In fiscal year 2016, of the top 10 countries of origin for individuals who were removed from the United States, eight were in Latin America.

Clients served by Colectiva Legal del Pueblo who have been detained are typically unable to pay bonds, Mena said, and some have been detained for years.

The organization has also seen permanent legal residents detainees who decades ago committed minor infractions — such as driving under the influence — and asylum seekers.

A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, California on June 9, 2017.Elliot Spagat / AP file

“It's terribly, terribly troubling to hear all of the different accounts from folks in detention, everything from the high phone bills they have to pay just to be able to connect with their families, to the inadequate health care and inadequate food and nutrition that happens there. And this once again ties to the fact that these are all for-profit facilities trying to make money off of people's lives,” Mena told NBC News.

Jayapal said she was prompted to introduce the bill after having worked on the issue of detention for more than 15 years starting with an organization she founded after 9/11 called OneAmerica, which advances democracy and justice by empowering immigrant communities. Through her work, she has seen a dramatic growth in the country's detention system and the amount it costs taxpayers, she said.

In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement received funding for 27,500 detention beds. For fiscal year 2018, the House Appropriations Committee is proposing a total of 44,000 detention beds — a 4,676 bed increase from fiscal year 2017 — as part of a $4.4 billion budget allocation that would also fund fugitive operations teams and criminal alien program operations.

Jennifer Elzea, ICE acting press secretary, told NBC News in an email that the agency houses detainees in a variety of facilities across the United States, including ones that are ICE-owned-and-operated; local, county or state facilities; and those that are contractor-owned-and-operated, to achieve “the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer.”

ICE declined to comment on the pending legislation, but Elzea told NBC News that the agency is committed to providing a safe and secure environment for those it in its custody.

"ICE's civil detention system reduces transfers, maximizes access to counsel and visitation, promotes recreation, improves conditions of confinement and ensures quality medical, mental health and dental care,” she said.

In an email to NBC News, Rep. Adam Smith said a detention center in his district that is operated by a private company called The GEO Group, brought to his attention the abuse and neglect immigrants and refugees experience in private immigration detention facilities across the United States every day.

“The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act recognizes that the status quo is unacceptable,” he said. “We need to do more to ensure transparency and accountability, and this legislation would bring about a fundamental change in restoring dignity to our failing immigration detention system.”

The GEO Group refuted the claims about its facilities in an emailed statement.

“GEO has a long history of providing culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments that meet the needs of individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities as confirmed in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council report in 2016 on privately operated ICE facilities,” Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations at The GEO Group, wrote.

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