Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Living in detention

From a very fine Associated Press report that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday:

America's detention system for immigrants has mushroomed in the last decade, a costly building boom that was supposed to sweep up criminals and ensure that undocumented immigrants were quickly shown the door.

Instead, an Associated Press computer analysis of every person being held on a recent Sunday night shows that most did not have a criminal record and many were not about to leave the country _ voluntarily or via deportation.

An official Immigration and Customs Enforcement database, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed a U.S. detainee population of exactly 32,000 on the evening of Jan. 25.

The data show that 18,690 immigrants had no criminal conviction, not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like trespassing. More than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more; one man from China had been locked up for more than five years.

Nearly 10,000 had been in custody longer than 31 days -- the average detention stay that ICE cites as evidence of its effective detention management.

And further into the article is this:

Immigration lawyers note that substantial numbers of detainees, from 177 countries in the data provided, are not illegal immigrants at all. Many of the longest-term non-criminal detainees are asylum seekers fighting to stay here because they fear being killed in their home country. Others are longtime residents who may be eligible to stay under other criteria, or whose applications for permanent residency were lost or mishandled, the lawyers say.

Still other long-term detainees include people who can't be deported because their home country won't accept them or people who seemingly have been forgotten in the behemoth system, where 58 percent have no lawyers or anyone else advocating on their behalf.

And more:

Immigration violations are considered civil, something akin to a moving violation in a car, so the government can imprison immigrants without many of the rights criminals receive: No court-appointed attorney for indigent defendants, no standard habeas corpus, no protection from double jeopardy, no guarantee of a speedy trial.


Most immigrants are navigating a complex legal system without an attorney. Fifty-eight percent went through immigration proceedings without an attorney in fiscal year 2007, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the U.S. Justice Department.

Those who do have an attorney have little recourse if that lawyer turns out to be incompetent. In one of his last acts as Bush administration attorney general, Michael Mukasey reversed years of precedent by ruling that immigrants, unlike criminal defendants, cannot appeal on the grounds of incompetent counsel.

These points have long been made by advocacy groups, newspapers serving ethnic populations and by immigrants themselves but have been under-reported in mainstream media. It is great to see AP devote this sort of word-count to the story.

Read the full article:

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