In a week where the Associated Press decides to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from it’s widely used and highly regarded style guide, it comes as a surprise that detained immigrants are still being treated as something less than human.
In late March, the New York Times (which is also considering dropping the use of the term “illegal immigrant”) reported that on any given day, as many as 300 undocumented immigrants are held in solitary confinement at 50 different Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities nationwide. Many are isolated for weeks at a time in small, windowless cells about the size of a bathroom stall.
These practices at such facilities border on being cruel and unusual. Of the 300 or so people held in solitary confinement on any given day, 46% had been held for 15 days or more, 21% for 45 days or more, and 11% for 75 days or more.
United Nations officials say that solitary confinement for more than two weeks may constitute torture, and the psychological damage inflicted as a result is potentially irreversible.
The sad part of this whole story is that this is nothing new. The Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a detailed report last September shedding light on the appalling practice by ICE detention centers in using solitary confinement liberally and often without rhyme or reason.
The report quotes immigrants in solitary confinement as saying, “I’m losing my memory. I can’t remember conversations with people a few minutes after. I feel like I’m an animal.”
It’s not entirely clear why detainees get placed into solitary confinement. According to the Times, it can range from simple rule violations, talking back to guards or getting into fights. Some were also isolated because they were considered a threat to others, and in some cases, for their own safety, such as if they were gay, mentally ill or at risk of suicide.
What’s more surprising is the fact that most of the detainees at such detention centers haven’t been convicted of any criminal offenses, but rather have only been accused of civil infractions and are awaiting deportation proceedings.
The New York Times wrote this week:
For those held for civil violations, solitary confinement is wildly inappropriate. Civil detention is imposed not as punishment, but simply to make sure somebody shows up for a hearing. Many detainees are victims of political oppression or human trafficking, many are only seeking better lives, some are ill. These are people America should be sheltering, not arbitrarily brutalizing.
According to trauma experts, the psychological impact of solitary confinement may be more damaging for immigrant detainees because many are victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or sexual assault or have escaped persecution and torture in their home countries.
As our elected officials continue to negotiate the terms of comprehensive immigration reform, it’s also imperative that they determine how to reform the existing detention system and to decide what rights detained immigrants have.