Daily Dispatch 1/23/2020: Take Action to Block New Detention Contracts in Texas, Gain release of hunger-strikers

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Daily Dispatch

January 23, 2020

frontside of post card

Here are two simple actions you can take TODAY to confront the Trump administration’s detention machinery:

Block new detention contracts in TX!

Earlier in January we wrote about Immigration and Customs Enforcement looking to extend 10-year long contracts to three facilities in Texas. Today we are sharing a campaign from Texas-based Grassroots Leadership and our partners at the Detention Watch Network. See below:

Since the creation of the first detention center in the US, communities across the county have actively fought to shut down immigration jails that lock away loved ones, neighbors and friends. Immigration jails are inhumane, strip people of their dignity and agency, and must be shut down for good.

Right now, ICE is working to extend contracts for three Texas detention centers that will prolong detention in the state for the next 10 years. The facilities are the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin, the South Texas Detention Complex near San Antonio, and the Houston Processing Center.  

DWN member Grassroots Leadership is doing everything they can to make sure we don’t see a continuation of these facilities and the pain that they inflict for the next decade. Last month, more than 45 organizations across Texas delivered a letter to members of Congress urging them to investigate ICE’s attempt to evade procurement law.s. And earlier this week, Texas representatives sent a letter to ICE demanding the immediate suspension of the contracts.

It’s still not enough, and this is where we need your help!     

Members of Congress need to hear from you now. Death and ongoing allegations of abuse should be enough of a reason to close down these facilities full stop.     

Fill out this form, and Grassroots Leadership will send a postcard on your behalf to your representatives and members of key committees with the power to intervene.

Texas already incarcerates a quarter of all immigrants detained nationwide—we cannot allow for this to become the state’s reality for the next decade and serve as a model for detention expansion nationwide.

Send this card by filling out form here.

Gain release of hunger strikers in LA!

We’ve also been following the case of hunger strikers at LaSalle Detention facility in Jena, Louisiana. The men have passed the 75 day mark – approaching 80 days! Freedom for Immigrants has launched a petition demanding their release you can add your name to here.

Five South Asian men have reached the 75th day of a hunger strike in the GEO Group-operated LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana where they have been subjected to the tortuous procedure of forced-hydration and force-feeding. According to medical professionals, 75 days without adequate nutrition is when vital organs begin to fail.

The growing number of hunger strikes in ICE prisons across the country are no coincidence. It is indicative of complete disbelief in a fair legal process and the lengths ICE is willing to go to indefinitely detain them. Some of these men have been locked up for nearly 2 years. We are deeply concerned that ICE appears willing to let these men die in detention to make an example of them rather than be released to the community, where each man has family or close friends willing to provide housing and support.

Sign here.

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Daily Dispatch 1/22/2020: Mexico cracks down on migrants

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Daily Dispatch

January 22, 2020

Salvadoran migrant Carlos Gutierrez, part of a caravan of mostly Hondurans heading to the US, puts his shoes on at the international border bridge which links Tecun Uman, Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on January 21, 2020. 
 JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Vox post here

It is a new year, and a new test of immigration enforcement policy and strategy in Mexico. Recall that, last year, the Mexican government agreed to adopt a set of enforcement mechanisms under threat of sanctions from the United States. Trump threatened to add tariffs of 25% on all goods from Mexico unless the government ramped up its enforcement, and in essence, kept asylum seekers from Central America away from the U.S. border. The agreements included an expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocol (commonly called the “Remain in Mexico” policy), Mexico’s deployment of 12,000 National Guardsmen to the southern border to stem migration, and its decision to adopt other measures to slow border crossings.

The Washington Office on Latin America issued an excellent report on the conditions created by these measures. Their report, “The ‘Wall’ before the Wall” came out in December, and can be read in its entirety here. A summary of key findings include:

  • An increase in apprehensions  – up to 31,416 in June 2019, the highest monthly apprehension rate recorded since 2001.
  • Detention facilities are operating well beyond capacity.
  • The deployment of 12,000 National Guardsmen in reality means deploying Army and Naval police and other military units, temporarily assigned to border duty. Soldiers, not trained for such a mission.
  • A surge in asylum-seekers in Mexico has strained the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, already understaffed and reliant on support from the UNHCR.
  • Crimes against migrants continue unabated, despite the presence of National Guardsmen.

Against this backdrop, news over the last two days of the treatment of a caravan of migrants, many from Honduras, is not surprising. From Vox:

About 4,000 migrants had requested passage by presenting a petition addressed to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the bridge across the Suchiate River, which connects the port of entry at Ciudad Hidalgo to Guatemala. But after authorities refused to open the gates to the port, about 500 migrants attempted to cross the border by wading through the river.

In an unusual show of force, Mexican National Guard troops carrying riot shields fired tear gas and threw rocks at the migrants on the riverbank to stop them from crossing. The migrants threw rocks of their own at the guardsmen, according to NPR’s James Fredrick. Amid the chaos, Reuters reported that some families were separated.

It was yet another instance in which Mexico has sought to clamp down on Central American migrant caravans arriving at its border with Guatemala. The government wants to avoid antagonizing US President Donald Trump, who in 2019 threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican goods if the country did not step up its immigration enforcement efforts. Mexico also simply lacks the capacity to manage such large numbers of migrants.

From the Associated Press:

Hundreds of Central American migrants who entered southern Mexico in recent days have either been pushed back into Guatemala by Mexican troops, shipped to detention centers or returned to Honduras, officials said Tuesday. An unknown number slipped past Mexican authorities and continued north.

The latest migrant caravan provided a public platform for Mexico to show the U.S. government and migrants thinking of making the trip that it has refined its strategy and produced its desired result: This caravan will not advance past its southern border…

Honduran officials said more than 600 of its citizens were expected to arrive in that country Tuesday by plane and bus and more would follow in the coming days.

Of an additional 1,000 who tried to enter Mexico illegally Monday by wading across the Suchiate river, most were either forced back or detained later by immigration agents, according to Mexican officials.

Most of the hundreds stranded in the no-man’s land on the Mexican side of the river Monday night returned to Guatemala in search of water, food and a place to sleep. Late Tuesday, the first buses carrying Hondurans left Tecun Uman with approximately 150 migrants heading back to their home country.

Mexican authorities distributed no water or food to those who entered illegally, in what appeared to be an attempt by the government to wear out the migrants.               

As the spring approaches more caravans are likely. What the new enforcement measures will mean in terms of deterring people from even trying the crossing is hard to say. More likely, if caravans become impossible, people will be forced back into migrating in small groups, becoming prey for gangs. The entire deterrence framework is based on the assumption that asylum claims are suspect, and thus if people know they won’t succeed they won’t even try. However, when the reality is that people are literally fleeing for their lives and seeking security for themselves and families, they will simply try another way to get it done. All Trump and Obrador are doing is making it even more dangerous for them to do so.

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Daily Dispatch 1/14/2020: Conditions in detention begin with the treatment of prisoners

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Daily Dispatch

January 14, 2020

Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Left: a shower with damaged walls; top right: a shower with missing ceilings and knobs; bottom right: a backed up shower drain. One building had a single working shower for more than 50 inmates. (Parchman 2019 Health Inspection Report)

“But a punishment like forced labour or even imprisonment – mere loss of liberty – has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself: rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement … There remains, therefore, a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice – a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

At a converted prison in Jena, Lousianna, five men from India are engaged in a hunger strike. Two of the men have passed the 70 day mark and are being forcefully hydrated. The men came to the United States seeking asylum. They appeared at legal port of entry and declared their intent to seek asylum. All of this is perfectly legal, of course. But they were detained anyway. They all have family sponsors ready to receive them upon release. Nevertheless, they remain incarcerated in conditions they are protesting with their very lives. From Truthout:

Both men fear they will face violence if they are deported to India and asked volunteers to keep their names out of the press. One is 37 years old and the other is 22, and both filed asylum claims after crossing at a legal port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border before being shuffled through the nation’s vast immigration detention system.

Graffeo said the two men can no longer walk and are in wheelchairs. They could suffer organ damage or even death within a week, as many hunger strikers do not make it past 75 days.

“It’s a rapid decline at this point,” Graffeo said.

Three other men at the facility are also on strike but recently began drinking some fluids, and all five have been subjected to forced hydration over the past month after refusing to eat and drink, according to Freedom for Immigrants.

Rather than release asylum seekers on bond, the Trump administration is keeping as many as it can locked up. In Louisiana, this has meant an explosion in contracts to private companies, and local state and county jails. Overall the Trump administration has opened or signed agreements with 24 new facilities since taking office, adding 17,000 bed spaces for “civil” detention under Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. One result of this increase and the tactics employed is a dramatic increase in protests of conditions.

Hunger strikes have erupted at immigration jails nationwide as the Trump administration responded to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border with policies that prioritize incarceration, with many adults held indefinitely as they wait to see a judge. Last year, immigrant rights groups documented 14 hunger strikes at immigration jails across the country. Strikers typically protest poor conditions and medical treatment and demand their right to freedom and due process. Freedom for Immigrants has identified 1,600 hunger strikers in immigration jails since 2015.

Meanwhile, just across the border in Mississippi, five men who had been imprisoned were murdered over the last two weeks. From Mother Jones:

The recent violence began on December 29, when Terrandance Dobbins was killed in what the corrections department described vaguely as a “major disturbance” at South Mississippi Correctional Institution, and two other men there were injured. On New Year’s Eve, the lockdown began, and the department’s commissioner announced her resignation. During the first several days of the year, four more men were beaten or stabbed to death, including three at Parchman. For context, that’s almost the same number of people killed at Parchman during the eight years prior. “Things are kind of surreal at this point,” coroner Heather Burton told the Clarion Ledger of the recent deaths. “Every time the phone rings at this point, it’s another one.” 

Last year the Marshall Project undertook a study of Mississippi prisons, finding that the overcrowded, understaffed institutions, are the sites of enormous abuse. In a detailed study of one prison, operated under contract with the private company MTC, the warden managed the prison using gangs – and he claimed to auditors that this was common practice in the state. From the Marshall Project:

Bradley’s response to this problem, according to the audit: “he speaks with the gang lords/leaders and asks them to ‘control their men.’ If they do not control the individuals on the unit, the Warden will place the unit on lockdown,” which means prisoners are confined to their cells with no visits, no recreation, no meals in the cafeteria. Using gangs this way is just how Mississippi prisons operate, the warden said: “It ain’t right, but it’s the truth.” He told auditors that the head of the criminal investigations division at the Mississippi Department of Corrections, who was not named, had encouraged him to partner with gang leaders.

One result of the deaths, is an airing of the conditions in these prisons. Mississippi under went criminal justice reform, much as in neighboring Louisiana, in order to cut its prison budget. Though the incarceration rate initially declined following 2014 reforms, it has begun to go up again. However, the budget has not.

With fewer funds, Mississippi prisons are practically crumbling in disrepair. At Parchman, holes riddle the walls and prison doors, ceilings are collapsing, and roaches and rats run throughout the facility, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which reviewed Department of Health inspections. Many incarcerated people go about their days in the dark, since hundreds of cells now lack lights or power—a sharp decline in conditions compared with seven years ago, when all cells had electricity and lighting. Today, one building had just one shower for more than 50 prisoners, who described going weeks sometimes without a chance to wash, according to the investigation.

In addition to state budget cuts, Federal oversight of the prison ended in 2011, and conditions have fallen off dramatically since.

From Propublica’s report,The‌ ‌prison’s‌ drinking ‌water‌ ‌has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act dozens of times, ‌and‌ the Environmental Protection Agency has cited the ‌prison’s sewage‌ ‌system‌ for three years for violating the Clean Water Act, documents‌ ‌show.‌‌ ‌Parchman’s‌ ‌accreditation‌ ‌by‌ ‌the‌ ‌American‌ ‌Correctional‌ ‌Association,‌ ‌which‌ ‌sets‌ ‌standards‌ ‌for‌ ‌prisons‌ ‌across‌ ‌the‌ ‌country,‌ ‌lapsed in 2017.‌‌”

Propublica also notes that in 2012, one year after federal oversight ended, an inspection found one prisoner without a mattress and twelve toilets inoperable. This year, 250 prisoners had no mattress and 68 toilets were in disrepair. The utter collapse of these conditions lies at the root of the violence. The fact that as a society we treat inmates as thrown away people, undeserving of the most basic human dignity is why these conditions are politically acceptable. It has also set the stage for the conditions in immigrant detention, where 75% of the people detained are in facilities run by prison companies, and most of the rest are in jails and state run prisons.

Of course, the poor conditions faced by immigrants in detention have been well documented and roundly criticized by pundits, candidates, and members of Congress. However, not much has been done in the policy realm to reform the system. Indeed, Trump continues to basically make conditions worse since Congress can’t find the will to stop him. As awareness of these conditions grow, we can only hope that it is accompanied by an awareness of the roots of these conditions. 

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world – both in absolute terms and adjusted for population. The conditions in U.S. prisons parallel conditions in immigrant detention: poor health care, limited access (to mostly privatized) mental health services, overuse of solitary confinement, abuse at the hands of guards and others who are incarcerated. Confinement, whether criminal incarceration or civil detention, employs a core set of techniques meant to dehumanize and control. We seem to know no other way. This week grueling evidence of the conditions in U.S. prisons appeared briefly above the ramparts of our collective indifference. We need to keep that awareness alive and demand change. 

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Daily Dispatch 1/10/2020: ICE seeking to lock-in 10 year contracts in Texas

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January 10, 2020

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking to extend three new 10-year contracts for immigrant detention facilities in Texas. Based on a review of the Request for Proposals the three sites are the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, and the Houston Processing Center in Houston. The solicitations raise a number of questions. The first whether they are truly open bids – or if they are simply prima facie requests with the current holders of the contracts for these facilities basically locked in. The Quixote Center signed onto a letter in December coordinated by Grassroots Leadership in Texas demanding answers. The letter notes: “In some cases, ICE feigns competition by creating solicitations with requests so specific to its desired target(s) that no other interested party can meaningfully compete. This makes a sham of the federal procurement process. Understanding this pattern allowed us to identify the specific facilities the pre-solicitation notice was directed toward.” 

Second, as also noted in the letter, there is the concern about the facilities themselves. In the case of T Don Hutto, Williamson County has already severed its ties with the facility in a bid to get it closed following repeated reports of sexual abuse. In response to the county vote, ICE simply extended a bridge contract directly with CoreCivic to keep the facility open until a new, long-term, contract could be negotiated. A ten year deal that side steps the county’s decision would be a real slap in the face to the community, not to mention a serious end-around local control and democratic practice.

Houston Processing Center is also operated by CoreCivic and holds the distinction of being the first private prison in the country. It was opened in 1984 by the Corrections Corporation of America (which became CoreCivic). This means the same company has had the contract for 35 years now, even though this facility has recorded among the highest numbers of deaths in custody since 2003.

South Texas Detention Complex, operated by the GEO Group, has its own track record of abuse, being among the “leaders” in the use of solitary confinement, which is a fundamental abuse of human rights. Of course, let’s face it, all of these examples are endemic in the system itself, which is dominated by private contractors (half of the people in ICE detention are either in a GeoGroup or CoreCivic facility).

Which raises a third question: Why is ICE using tax-payer resources to bail out private prison companies that have demonstrably bad track records? In the latest expose of the private prison industry, USA Today is publishing a series of reports on immigrant detention. The second report in the series details how the private prison industry has expanded under Trump, and the kinds of influence the industry attempts to gain through political contributions and lobbying. Since Trump took office, 24 facilities and 17,000 bed spaces have been added to ICE’s detention infrastructure.  From USA Today:

The booming business spends $3 billion a year housing a record high of roughly 50,000 people, the majority of whom have no criminal record. The [USAToday] investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.

So, the conditions in the Texas facilities are, sadly, par for the course. In response to these conditions, and the growing awareness of them as Trump has expanded detention capacity, communities around the country have been pushing back. Some achievements include a recently passed ban on new contracts with private prisons to detain immigrants in California, restrictions against new contracts in Illinois, a series of local efforts, like the one in Williamson County, to cut Intergovernmental Service Agreements between ICE and counties, and significant push back against cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE, including denying ICE access to local jails for detention purposes. The movement has also led banks to cut off lending to private prison companies.

A significant impact of this movement is that ending (or restricting) contracts with private prison companies for immigrant detention is now a common position among Democrats running for president – Warren has staked out the clearest position of those remaining in the race. Such bans have also been featured in legislation, albeit bills not likely to move far in this Congress. Obama had already sought to end private contracting – a position which led private prison industry folks to embrace Trump’s campaign and donate a lot of money to it, including $250,000 from both CoreCivic and GeoGroup to Trump inaugural committee. It seemed to pay off. Trump’s administration overturned Obama’s executive order limiting new contracts with private prison companies within a month of taking office.

So, the companies ICE contracts with are facing significant local, state, and potentially national backlash over conditions in facilities. And Trump won’t be president forever. Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, was interviewed for the USA Today report, and said “This is their moment. They’re thinking, ‘We don’t know how long Trump is going to be in office, so let’s get all the money to him and to Republicans and solidify ourselves.’ ” The industry donated $38,000 to Obama’s election funds over his entire 8 years in office. They have already donated $969,000 to Trump in 3 years.

One result: ICE has their back. We saw this recently in California, where the new ban on contracts went into effect January 1, 2020. During the last two weeks of December 2019 ICE extended 5 new contracts for detention to private companies in the state, expanding, not reducing the footprint of private prison companies in the state. Not satisfied with the last minute save from the Trump administration, GeoGroup is now suing California to get the law overturned.

Which brings us back to Texas. The state government is still under the control of the GOP, and is not likely to pass anything like the bans in California or Illinois anytime soon.  But it is also where the largest number of people are detained. So companies have every incentive to lock in contracts for as long as possible. There is also a widespread ecosystem of support for immigrants in the state. One that has grown up over many years. So, while the state government may not take action, counties have, e.g. Williamson County severed the contract with T. Don Hutto.

What can localities do to stop ICE from extending contracts? There are limited options, but one thing you can do is let your member of Congress know that you do not support the Trump administration locking in your community as a host for immigrant detention for the next ten years. Congress could block these contracts, or minimally demand that regular procurement rules are followed. The administration has no plan to pay for any of this – they are already over budget for detention. So, even fiscal conservatives should be angry.

Detention, as we say over and over, is also unnecessary. Community release is sufficient oversight for immigrants awaiting removal proceedings – which are the only reason people are in ICE detention to begin with. People show up for their court case – 98.7% of asylum seekers showed up to every court hearing last year. 98.7%. It is time to end this inhumane practice.

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Daily Dispatch 1/8/2020: Stand-up for Refugees: Resources from LCWR

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Daily Dispatch

January 8, 2020

Last night Beltrami County became the only county in Minnesota, and only the second county in the U.S., to deny entrance to refugees under Trump’s new executive order. Image: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII – MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
Gallery: Those in attendance who favored a motion against refugee resettlement stood in the back and made their opinions known.

LCWR has assembled some helpful information and resources to assist communities in organizing to push back against the Trump administration’s efforts to close off this country to refugee resettlement. Today the District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland is hearing arguments in a case about one of the administration’s efforts (an Executive order requiring states and localities to offer written consent before refugees can be resettled there – more detail immediately below).  The hearing is the inspiration for the list of resources being shared below. So here it is, from LCWR:

As you may recall, on September 26, the President Trump issued an Executive Order (EO 13888) that could drastically reduce, if not entirely end, the resettlement of refugees in your community. It requires state and local officials to provide written consent in order for refugee resettlement to continue in their states and localities. This means that refugee resettlement will stop in an entire state unless the governor sends a letter providing consent. County executives or their equivalents, depending on each state’s setup, must also provide consent in order for refugees to be resettled in their localities. We are urging governors and county officials to sign letters allowing refugee resettlement to continue, ASAP and by January 17th at the latest so the State Department has them when making decisions about where refugees can be resettled.

This EO is already creating chaos and confusion about where refugees can be resettled, which will lead to family separation for refugee families, and will leave refugees, former refugees and U.S. citizens without necessary supportive services. To make matters worse, the administration has set a refugee admissions cap of 18,000 refugees for the next year, an abysmal number that stands in stark contrast to the historic average annual resettlement goal of 95,000 refugees. Together, these actions are likely to destroy the bipartisan refugee resettlement program. It’s critical that we work together to demonstrate nationwide, bi-partisan support for refugees and ensure our state and local officials publicly declare welcome for refugees. We need you to make your voice heard and reach out to your members of Congress, governors, mayors, and county officials and ask them to support refugee resettlement. 

On Wednesday, January 8th – the District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland will hear oral arguments about this anti-refugee executive order and consider a preliminary injunction to block its implementation. LCWR is one of many faith-based organizations supporting the injunction against the Trump administration’s EO. This could decide the fate of the refugee resettlement program and impact thousands of refugees and their families.

We’ve created a Toolkit for Action: Support Court Intervention to Save the Refugee Resettlement Program—which contains background information about the EO and the court case, talking points, sample letters-to-the-editor and opinion pieces, sample social media posts, and an action alert that you can share with your folks.

We’ve also suggested other ways that you and your community can support refugees and refugee resettlement.

    1. Share Stories: Dedicate prayer, testimony, or a message to your faith community to welcome refugees.
    • Share the stories of refugees to move your congregation and community to action in support of welcoming refugees.
    • Invite a refugee member in your community to come and share their story. Record the activities via video, blogs, newsletters, or social media posts to spread the word more broadly.
    • Click here to share and use prayer resources.
    • Click here to sign up your congregation so that we know who is taking action and would like additional resources.
    1. Engage Local Media Outlets: Write an Opinion Editorial or Letter to the Editor.
    • Writing for your local newspaper or your church newsletter is a great way to both educate your community members and demonstrate support for refugees.
    • Click HERE for background, talking points, and sample letters.
    • Host a public narrative training to help refugees learn how to tell their stories with the media, elected officials, and community members – and pitch stories to the media for those who are separated from their families because of the harsh anti-refugee policies of this administration.
    1. Amplify: Use Social Media
    1. Activate: Elected Officials
    • Members of Congress: Call your 2 Senators and 1 Representative and tell them to protect refugees and restore the resettlement program.
      • Join us to tell your Members of Congress to protect refugees and restore the refugee resettlement program! Please make your voice heard so that all members of Congress hear loud and clear that their constituents care about refugees. The Trump administration has reduced the refugee resettlement program by 80% and set this year’s refugee admissions goal at 18,000 – the lowest level in U.S. history. Given that there are more than 25 million refugees worldwide — more than half of whom are children — these numbers are shockingly low.
      • Call Congress: 202-858-1581 Please call three times to be connected with your 1 Representative and 2 Senators

“I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and [as a person of faith] I urge you to protect refugees & asylum seekers and to be bold in choosing moral, just policies that provide refuge for vulnerable individuals seeking protection. I call on you to:

          • Co-sponsor the GRACE Act (S.1088 and H.R.2146), which would set a minimum refugee admissions goal at 95,000 (the historic average since 1980).
          • Co-sponsor the Refugee Protection Act (S.2936/H.R.5210), which would protect and strengthen protections for refugees and asylum seekers, modernize the resettlement program, and make it easier for families to reunify. 
          • Hold the administration accountable to meeting this year’s 18,000 refugee admissions goal and urge them to commit to resettling 95,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2021.
          • Join the bipartisan Congressional Refugee Caucus (for Representatives only).

My community welcomes refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, and I urge you to do the same.”

Please spread the word—Send this alert to your networks!

 
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Daily Dispatch: 1/6/2020: History lessons, preview of 2020 and Take action

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Daily Dispatch

January 6, 2020


History lessons on immigrant incarceration

Professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández has an interesting op-ed in the Los Angeles Times today concerning historic lessons about the politics of immigrant incarceration. Specifically, he discusses the Eisenhower administration’s decision to end immigrant incarceration in 1952, shuttering Ellis Island and 5 other detention sites. The United States was hardly a bastien of racial tolerance in 1952. Indeed, a massive round up of people from Mexico a couple of years later would end in the deportation of close to a million people – many of whom were U.S. citizens. But cold war political calculation and budgetary concerns made closure the right move. Wanting to distinguish the US as a “beacon of freedom” in contrast to the Soviet Union “it was more valuable to let migrants live freely in the United States than it was to keep them behind barbed wire.” The article is also a good reminder that the United States did not detain immigrants, except in very rare circumstances, between 1952 and 1982.

Though professor García Hernández does not focus on the current political moment in this article, there are clear connections to be made. The Trump administration has been continually over budget for detention, and has moved money around to cover shortfalls – without Congressional authorization and thus possibly in violation of the law. As federal criminal incarceration overall is falling it makes sense that those who profit from incarceration would seek to raise the unjustified and unnecessary expenditures for incarcerating immigrants. While there is a clear humanitarian crisis here, sadly that will not move many members of Congress- we shouldn’t hesitate to raise these other issues as well.

Professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández is the author of Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking Up Immigrants, released last year. I am currently reading this, and it is an excellent overview of immigrant imprisonment. He is doing speaking events around the country in support of the book. You can see a list of upcoming events here.

What does 2020 look like?

Stuart Anderson, writing in Forbes, has a highly detailed overview of immigration issues coming up this year. Forbes has done a surprisingly good job of covering immigration- especially, as one might suspect, changes in policies covering authorized immigration. This is largely thanks to Anderson’s regular reporting.

In the review, Anderson covers issues related to H1B and L1 visas, H-4 employment authorization documents, state of play on the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act (a Silicon Valley friendly effort to scrap country caps for visas), DACA, new restrictions being put forth for international students, lingering issues on the public charge rule change, temporary protected status, workplace enforcement, and USCIS fee increases. All worth a look. On Refugees and Asylum seekers, he writes:

Refugee and Asylum Policies: In September 2019, the Trump administration announced a historically low annual refugee admission ceiling of 18,000 for FY 2020, a reduction of 84% from the 110,000-limit set during the last year of the Obama administration. “The administration betrays our national commitment to offering refuge and religious freedom to persecuted Christians and other religious minorities,” said World Relief in a statement. There is no reason to anticipate the administration will raise the refugee ceiling for FY 2021. 

In response to an executive order mandating consent from state and local authorities to resettle refugees, more than 30 governors have written letters to the State Department pledging their states will continue to resettle refugees. Three organizations have filed a lawsuit over the executive order.

Numerous lawsuits have challenged the administration’s asylum policies toward Central Americans. In one respect, the administration has already “won” on asylum, since the policies to block most asylum seekers and send them to Mexico and other countries have been allowed to remain in place while litigation has continued. Any court decision that compels the administration to stop its current policies would be the most significant events on asylum in 2020. (See here for an analysis of asylum-related lawsuits.) In 2020, the administration will need to deal with an increase in Mexican asylum seekers fleeing violence in Mexico.

As Anderson also notes, the biggest immigration policy event of the upcoming year is the presidential election in November….

Courthouse Vigil in Greenbelt, MD

For those in the Washington DC area, there will be a vigil at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, MD as the court hears arguments on challenges to the Trump administration’s executive order allowing states and localities to opt out of accepting refugees. Get there early to get inside, or join people in vigil outside. Details:

“Pack the courtroom – show support for refugee resettlement” as the Federal Court in Greenbelt hears arguments against a Trump administration Executive Order that allows states and localities to block refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Federal Courthouse, 6500 Cherrywood Ln, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770

8:30 AM – Vigil outside the courthouse

9 AM – Begin lining up to enter the courtroom

10 AM – Oral arguments begin

After oral arguments – Press conference by the organizations that are bringing the lawsuit

Sponsors include:

Interfaith Immigration Coalition

Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Franciscan Action Network

the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

T’RUAH.(a Jewish human-rights organization)

The lawsuit against the executive order was filed by: 

HIAS (a 130-yr-old international refugee support group with HQ in Silver Spring)

CWS (Church World Service, a 70-yr-old interfaith group to act on the biblical works of mercy)

LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an 80-yr-old group with HQ in Baltimore)

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Daily Dispatch 1/3/2020: GEO Group Sues California

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Daily Dispatch

January 3, 2020


Last week I wrote a bit about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement was helping the GEO Group avoid a new law in California that banned future contracts with private companies for the incarceration of immigrants. The new law went into effect January 1, 2020. During the last week of December 2019, ICE extended 15-year contracts to GEO Group for the management of several facilities in California.

When the solicitations for those contracts were originally posted, members of Congress expressed concern that the solicitations were in violation of federal procurement law.

U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on Thursday [November 14] led a letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland (DHS) Chad F. Wolf and Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Matthew T. Albence questioning whether ICE has complied with federal procurement rules to award contracts for new detention facilities in California in the wake of California’s new law eliminating private prisons, including immigration detention facilities. Following the passage of the new California law, ICE officials posted a solicitation for numerous federal detention facilities around the state—an apparent attempt to undermine the spirit of the new law before its effective date on January 1, 2020. 

In the current environment, the fact that a letter from members of Congress was ignored by this administration is hardly surprising. 

Now, the GEO Group is taking the next step in its effort to push back against current efforts to limit profiteering from immigrant incarceration. The GEO Group is suing California. At issue is Law AB32 which was passed earlier in the fall. The law bans all new contracts with private firms for immigrant detention, and allows no changes to existing contracts. All private contracting is to end by 2028. The GEO Group suit alleges that the AB32 is an attempt to undercut federal enforcement of immigration laws, and that the state of California has no authority to block the federal government or the work of its contractors. This case, if it moves forward, could prove significant nationally, as parallel efforts to limit or eliminate private contracting for incarceration are underway in a number of states – and in Illinois, have led to similar bans on future contracts.

The Dignity not Detention Coalition responded to the lawsuit with the following statement this Tuesday (Dec. 31, 2019):

Dignity not Detention coalition condemns GEO lawsuit: “A shameless attempt to protect profits”

2019.12.31 – In response to the lawsuit filed by the GEO corporation against California’s AB 32 just two days before the law goes into effect, the Dignity not Detention Coalition issued the following statement: 

This lawsuit is yet another shameless attempt by the GEO group to protect its ill-gotten profits, safeguard illicit contracts which violate state and federal law, and to undercut the will of the people. Our tax dollars should not pay for immigrants’ suffering.  

In court, GEO and its shocking track record of abuse and in-custody deaths will be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. This unscrupulous corporation will face the legal prowess of California’s Attorney General and the full weight of the Constitution and federal law.  It is fully within California’s power and responsibility to protect all residents from abuse. 

AB 32, passed with bipartisan support, is a crucial step toward making our values of compassion and respect for human rights a reality. Nationwide, for-profit detention puts billions of taxpayer dollars in the pockets of private prison companies, while our schools, infrastructure, and communities suffer. 

Yet there is growing consensus that detention, like all mass incarceration, is inhumane and unnecessary — community-based case management is a powerful and effective alternative. From every corner of California and from coast to coast, we will continue to raise our voices for justice. 

The coalition includes California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, Immigrant Defense Advocates (IDA), Immigrant Defense Project (IDP), Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), Resilience Orange County, Freedom for Immigrants, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN), and others.

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Daily Dispatch 1/2/2020: Another death in custody amidst a flurry of reports on conditions. When will Congress Act? Support HR 2415

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Daily Dispatch

January 2, 2020


Another person died while in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The identity of the person has not been released yet, pending contact with relatives. What is known is that he was a forty-year old man from France who was being detained at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico until December 11 when he was transferred to Torrance County Detention Facility. A day later he was taken to the hospital where he died on December 29.

This is the third person to die in ICE custody since October 1, 2019, the beginning of the current fiscal year (which governs reporting cycles for government agencies). ICE issued a News Release about this death January 1 – two days after Buzzfeed News reported on it.

The other two people to die in ICE custody this year are, Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, asylum seeking from Cuba and Nebane Abienwi, asylum seeker from Cameroon. Both of whom would most likely still be alive if they had been granted parole to pursue their asylum cases outside rather than incarcerated. 

4 people have died this year while in Customs and Border Patrol (CPB does not report names):

A 49 year old man from Mexico died shortly after being detained by Customs and Border Patrol in Arizona from apparent cardiac failure.  CPB notification here. October 21, 2019

A 22 year old man from Honduras died in CPB custody after being struck by a vehicle on I-35 while running from a border patrol stop. October 22, 2019

A 42 year old man from Mexico held in the East Hidalgo Detention Facility, apparently committed suicide – though the case is under investigation. December 21, 2019

A 41 year old woman from Democratic Republic of Congo died on December 25, 2019. From CPB:

Early in the afternoon of December 24, 2019, a 41-year-old national from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and her family arrived in the United States, presenting themselves for admission into the U.S. at the Gateway to the Americas Bridge in Laredo, Texas. During initial processing, she was medically screened to include a review of paperwork she provided highlighting a previous medical condition, cleared by on-site contracted medical personnel, and transferred to the Lincoln Juarez Bridge for additional immigration processing and overnight holding. In the early morning of December 25, 2019, while awaiting final processing and release, the individual notified CBP officers that she was suffering from abdominal pain and had vomited.

She died at the Laredo Medical Center a few hours after being transferred.

Following the death of Roylan Hernandez-Diaz at a Richwood, Lousianna facility, USA-Today launched an investigative report documenting what is already widely known – that ICE detention facilities, many, though not all, contracted to private companies, are the sites of abuse and poor access to health services. From the December 22 report,  

The USA TODAY Network uncovered the Richwood episode during an investigation of the rapidly growing network of detention centers used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.

Combined with an analysis by a government watchdog, the USA TODAY Network analyzed inspection reports since 2015 and identified 15,821 violations of detention standards. Yet more than 90% of those facilities received passing grades by government inspectors. Network reporters interviewed 35 former and current detainees, some conducted using video chats from inside an ICE detention center. They reviewed hundreds of documents from lawsuits, financial records and government contracts, and toured seven ICE facilities from Colorado to Texas to Florida. Such tours are extremely rare.

The week and a half before the USA Today report was released, Buzzfeed published a scathing report on health conditions at ICE facilities following the leak of a memo written in April 2018 from a whistleblower from ICE’s Health Service Corp:

The memo describes what happened to 17 different immigrants who were held at nine facilities across six states, from Georgia to Washington. The allegations include:

    • That immigrants received incorrect medications. One man was given an antidepressant instead of an antipsychotic drug, likely worsening his condition. Another was given aspirin despite having thin blood — he nearly died.
    • That four immigrants endured severe withdrawal symptoms while in ICE custody. One man addicted to opioids was the subject of a “medication error”; two men with a benzodiazepine addiction saw delays in treatment; and one man “went into severe alcohol withdrawal and delirium and was admitted to the hospital in the intensive care unit.”
    • That IHSC leadership was unresponsive or even dishonest when confronted. They “failed to take appropriate action” when told of policy violations in 10 of the cases; “did not respond” to concerns about one case in which a detainee with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma died under “deplorable” conditions; and were “erroneous” and told others to “hold off” when looking into several cases.

Overall, the memo says, the whistleblower alleged that IHSC “has systematically provided inadequate medical and mental health care and oversight to immigration detainees across the U.S.” The memo also says the inspector general will investigate the whistleblower’s allegation that they were retaliated against for raising the issues.

Politico released a report on December 1 that demonstrates how poor record keeping concerning immigrant health has contributed to deaths. 

The Department of Homeland Security’s inadequate medical technology and record-management for the thousands of migrants who pass through its custody are contributing to poor care and even deaths, according to lawsuit records reviewed by POLITICO.

A review by POLITICO of 22 deaths of detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody between 2013 and 2018 revealed malfunctioning software and troubling gaps in use of technology, such as failure to properly document patient care or scribbling documentation in the margins of forms. Those reviews echo persistent complaints from experts and advocates for migrants rights who say attention to the medical needs of asylum seekers is indifferent at best. Recent reports indicate that Customs and Border Patrol rejected a CDC recommendation to administer flu shots to people in its custody; two children later died of flu in the agency’s facilities.

There have been at least 7 children who have died in, or shortly after release from, CBP detention under the Trump administration – the first children to die in custody in over a decade. The American Immigration Lawyers Association tracks deaths in CBP custody here.

In response to reports, most directly the Buzzfeed News report from leaked memo, The House Oversight and Reform Committee announced an investigation into the provision of health services at facilities housing immigrant detainees. While we are glad to see action at the Congressional level, these conditions have been reported on for years now – previous to Trump and now worsening under his leadership and expansion of detention. It is time for action.

There is a bill in Congress that would phase out the use of private contractors, as well as outsourcing detention to state and local authorities. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to keep civil detention in house, mandates restricted use of detention as a strategy, and extends significant oversight over the whole process. It is exactly what is needed, and thus, conventional wisdom says, it will go nowhere, especially in an election year. We need to confront the logic that treating people humanely is considered bad politics during elections in this country.  But that is a separate post. For now, read more about and push your member of congress to support H.R. 2415. 

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Daily Dispatch 12/30/2019: Liberians Gain access to permanent residency; Trump and Evangelicals…

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Daily Dispatch

December 30, 2019

Mohamed A. Sanoe, left, a Liberian national, stands with his daughter, right, in front of a US flag after taking the oath to become a US citizen at Citizenship and Immigration Services in New York on November 13, 2015.
 Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Liberians can transition from deferred enforcement to Green Card holders

Tucked into an otherwise immoral mess of a defense appropriations bill, was a provision that will allow Liberians who have been in the United States since 2014, but are currently under a temporary immigration provision, Deferred Enforced Departure, to apply for green cards. This is at once both great news, and a sad reminder of how absurd the legislative process is – e.g. the only way to do the right thing for Liberians was to bury it in a defense appropriation bill that is considered sacrosanct, and thus untouchable at vote time by both parties. Indeed, we’ll recall from two weeks ago, that the Department of Homeland Security budget was bundled with the Defense appropriations bill to keep some Democrats in line who would have otherwise voted against the DHS bill (some still did, of course, but as DHS was bundled with Defense it did not matter for the final outcome [it passed by a huge margin], which was the point). On the other hand, do Republicans know they voted for the first expansion of eligibility for green cards and a path to citizenship in decades? Probably more than a few surprises in store for Congresspersons in a 2,400-page budget package delivered a day before the vote.

Conceding the mess that is our legislative process, we can still pause for a moment and celebrate a pretty significant victory for the nearly 4,000 Liberians living in the United States.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Thursday that it started accepting green card applications for Liberians who have lived in the US since November 2014, as well as their spouses and unmarried children. After holding a green card for five years, eligible Liberians can apply for US citizenship.

Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Tina Smith (D-MN) had originally proposed the legislation offering green cards to Liberians as an individual bill, before it was tacked on to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In an era of deadlocked immigration policy, this marks the first time in decades that Congress has offered a pathway to citizenship to a new group of immigrants.

“Separating and uprooting hundreds of Liberian-American families from their jobs and homes and forcing them to return to a country that is unrecognizable for many of them would not have been in America’s best interests,” Reed said in a statement in March.

Civil war drove thousands of Liberians to seek refuge in the US from about 1989 to 2003 under a program known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) that gave them temporary protection from deportation. About 4,000 Liberians continue to live in the US with DED status, which Trump threatened to end last year before deciding to extend the wind-down period to March 30, 2020.

In principal, the same arguments for extending a path to permanent residency, and then citizenship, to Liberians under DED would also apply to other deferred action programs – such as Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. TPS is extended to people from countries following extreme natural disasters or political conflicts. Currently there are 300,000 + people living in the U.S. (well over half from El Salvador and Haiti), who are allowed to work provisionally if they are registered TPS holders. DACA protects at least 700,000 people who came to the U.S. as children – usually brought with parents who were not authorized to enter the country. The House passed a bill this summer that would extend a path to citizenship for people registered under TPS and DACA – but that bill is not expected to see much daylight in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s efforts to end TPS for most countries, and to rescind DACA are currently tied up in courts. So, we are probably heading for an election year showdown on both. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Trump’s decision to end DACA in November, and is expected to issue its ruling this summer. On DACA, however the courts decide, it is important to remember that Trump has the authority to end the program. The issue before the court is how he did it. Which means a legislative solution is required for the program, or some variation of it.

Meanwhile, for Liberians living in the United States the insecurity of living with a deferred enforcement label is over, for now. We can only hope the same will hold true for the many other people living in this country with a status that subjects them to the whims of our deeply divided political process.

“White” evangelicals are said to love Trump, Why?

Since candidate Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women on tape, faced several lawsuits over rape allegations, and likley paid off women and reporters to keep affairs out of the media (turned out to be a bad strategy), people have wondered why conservative Christians still love the guy.

I haven’t. 

First, not all concervative Christians like Trump. Which is not unimportant to keep in mind when reading headlines like, “One surprisingly simple reason evangelicals love Trump.” That said, Trump is undeniably more popular with white Evangelicals that any other combined race/ethnic/religious demographic. Not 100%, mind you, but he does have a 75% approval rating among white evangelicals, compared to a 42% approval rating overall. 

Second, the reason why most white evangelicals like Trump is clear. They dislike immigrants even more. And so Trump is their guy. They are “conservative” or “nationalists” before they are “christians.” This shouldn’t be so hard to understand as these other values often trump the more challenging Christian ideals of compassion and non-violence (how many Christians in Congress voted for that Defense bill?). This is also why trying to give them gospel lessons won’t matter. They often don’t read the bible anyway (at least nothing between Deuteronomy and Revelations). 

To the point, Ryan Burge, a professor at Eastern Illinois University, reviewed the data, and yes, white evangelicals support harsh immigration laws, and are typically far outside the mainstream:

I grabbed the 2018 wave of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, and took a look at the five questions that they ask about immigration. Then I calculated three things for each question: the share of white evangelicals who are in favor, the share of the entire population that is in favor, and then I found the group that was the second most conservative on each issue (because white evangelicals were always the most conservative). The results are visualized below.

The gap between white evangelicals and the average American is humongous. In fact, on four of the five issue areas the total distance between the two groups is at least twenty percentage points. And, when compared to the next most conservative religious groups, there’s still a decent amount of daylight. For three issues, it’s at least ten percentage points, but it’s never less than five points (on the issue of DACA).

It is worth pointing out that even a majority of white Evangelicals  support DACA. So, there is that. 

This is Trump’s base – and he built it demonizing immigrants. That it has worked, despite his other well publicized moral failings, should be a warning. It is not enough to call people hypocrites, bigots or whatever. We have to out organize them. The religious right figured this out a long time ago. Which is why they exercise far more power than their overall numbers would suggest. 

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Daily Dispatch 12/27/2019: “Handle with Care”

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Daily Dispatch

December 27, 2019


“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell

In July of 2018, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice sent a certification team to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center to investigate reports of abuse against immigrant teens being detained at the facility under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Shenandoah Valley was one of three facilities with contracts to hold children deemed to be behavioral problems – most of whom, according to staff who testified before Congress, were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma they suffered in the places they were fleeing. 

The certification team was sent to the facility on direction from newly elected governor Ralph Northam following an investigative report by the Associated Press into conditions at the facility. The AP story presented evidence based on dozens of interviews with children who had been held at the facility, all of whom reported widespread abuse. The AP story was one of dozens of reports about the conditions of children in detention to emerge in the wake of Trump’s child separation policy, as reporters began to track where children were ending up. In this case, the AP caught wind of a lawsuit against the facility filed in 2017 and followed up. There were a number of issues identified, but among the most abusive was the use of a “restraint” chair. From the AP story:

“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me,” said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. “Strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn’t really move. … They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on.”

And,

A Guatemalan youth sent to the center when he was 14 years old said he was often locked in his tiny cell for up to 23 hours a day. After resisting the guards, he said he was also restrained for long periods.

“When they couldn’t get one of the kids to calm down, the guards would put us in a chair — a safety chair, I don’t know what they call it — but they would just put us in there all day,” the teen said in a sworn statement. “This happened to me, and I saw it happen to others, too. It was excessive.”

A 15-year-old from Mexico held at Shenandoah for nine months also recounted being restrained with a bag over his head. “They handcuffed me and put a white bag of some kind over my head,” he said, according to his sworn statement. “They took off all of my clothes and put me into a restraint chair, where they attached my hands and feet to the chair. They also put a strap across my chest. They left me naked and attached to that chair for two and a half days, including at night.”

From the lawsuit, filed in October of 2017 by “John Doe,” unidentified Mexican teen on behalf of himself and others held at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (SVJC):

Doe and other children have suffered serious physical and emotional harm from Defendant’s use of restraints. The restraints are very tight, often leaving bruises and cuts on the children’s wrists after they have been taken off. Doe has complained about this and shown his injuries to SVJC staff and to ORR’s on-site representatives, but they have taken no actions to remedy it.

Doe and other children have also been confined to their rooms for 24 hours or more at a time. On some occasions the children are stripped of their clothes, including their underwear, during such lengthy periods of confinement.

Doe has also been tied to a chair, on multiple occasions, as a form of punishment. He has remained tied to a chair for several hours at a time.

There is no legitimate penological justification for using confinement or restraints in this manner, as they are used long after control of the subject child has been secured and there is no threat of further violence. Defendant’s conduct is motivated by a desire to harass or humiliate the detained children in their care or to provoke a response that justifies the use of force by staff. 

Further, reporting earlier this year on systemic problems of sexual abuse of children in ORR facilities – over 6,000 claimants between 2014 and 2018 – included abuse at SVJC:

In October 2016, a child at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia said a staff member grabbed his crotch area and squeezed after he had been physically restrained. The incident was reported to child protective services, but not investigated, and the staffer was moved to another housing unit.

In testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about this case one of the lawyers representing youth at SVJC wrote,

Between November 2015 and November 2017, the restraint chair was used over 40 times on immigrant children, often in excess of SVJC’s two-hour limit policy; on one occasion, one youth suffering from serious mental health problems was placed in the restraint chair for over 6 hours in a day and for nearly 9 hours the very next day, while John Doe 1 was put in the chair 11 times over a 16 month period for between 25 minutes and 2 hours at a time. Such use of force and/or isolation deviates from professionally accepted standards in the medical (AMA) and psychologist communities and has been rejected by governmental and private commissions that guide standards for juvenile facilities.

Handle with Care….

The Certification team published its account of conditions at the facility in August of 2018, and found no evidence of abuse – or more specifically, no evidence of actions that met the legal threshold for abuse. In part, because the use of a restraint chair and placing of a bag over a child’s head is permitted. From their report:

Review of training records indicated that all staff are trained in the use of restraints through a behavioral management system titled “Handle With Care.” Per regulation, mechanical restraints shall not be used as punishment; however, they are used for the protection of resident and staff. The regulation requires that SVJC train staff in the use of mechanical restraints including but not limited to the restraint chair and mesh spit guards. The restraint chair is used for out-of-control residents who cannot be safely restrained by less intrusive methods. While in the chair, a mesh spit guard can be placed on the resident’s head to prevent spitting or biting.

Interviews with children were also conducted on-site, where they are under supervision, and not likely to be forthcoming.

On the release of the report, the facility deputy director released a statement, “”The report confirms our long-standing dedication to being a well-run facility that treats our residents with respect and dignity.” The report, though giving a pass on abuse below the legal threshold, did offer recommendations for improvements, including expanding training for staff on de-escalation techniques. 

However, in the midst of the investigation, the Department of Juvenile Justice “discovered” that its, Certification Unit and Quality Assurance Unit had “no legal access to the youth in the federally-run ORR program.” As part of the expanded oversight, the Board of the Department of Juvenile Justice voted to require agency oversight on any new contract for detention of children held in Virginia. That the Department was unaware of this lack of access, and had not actually inspected the facility to this point is a sad testimony to the concern exhibited toward immigrant youth detained in this country. 

The Federal Lawsuit against Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center was dismissed in July of 2019. It was not dismissed on the merits of the case, but because there were no plaintiffs left willing to testify

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center last week that accused the facility of abuse against undocumented minors

Filed in October 2017, the suit initially detailed alleged use of excessive force and solitary confinement of immigrant children as young as 14.

It included claims that children were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells. Lawyers for the detention center denied any wrongdoing.

However, those who filed the lawsuit steadily lost any of the complainants willing to testify about the accusations. They were given until January to substitute a new representative of the claims to “pursue a claim of constitutionally inadequate mental health care,” but were unable to do so, requiring them to withdraw their claims of excessive force, restraints and isolation.

The original John Doe withdrew from the case – I could not find a verified reason – though he would have turned 18 by this point and faced immediate deportation. He was replaced by two other John Does who stepped-in as plaintiffs, both of whom were actually then deported. A fourth John Doe came forward to speak to the inadequate mental health treatment, narrowing the focus of the case significantly from the original filing. He eventually withdrew as well, leading to court to dismiss the case.

If there is an upside to this story, it is that local officials in Northern Virginia turned down the Department of Health and Human Services when it came looking for a site for a new 440 bed facility to detain immigrant youth long-term in August 2019. The public outrage over Shenandoah Valley was enough for officials to find some courage and keep DHS at arms-length. It is not clear that the new facility will even get built at this point – though ORR was still looking at potential sites in Texas and Arizona.

The reality, however, is that the abuse of children in custody is excessive and systemic, and continues. And this must change. From May 2019 testimony to U.S. Civil Rights Commission on SVJC:

it is critical to note that current regulations or laws in the state of Virginia were insufficiently stringent to prevent many of the egregious violations experienced by the immigrant children at SVJC. Unlike many states and facilities that have outlawed its use, Virginia permits the use of the restraint chair. It permits extended solitary confinement of children, including those suffering from trauma or mental health needs, for 72 hours at a stretch and up to 5 days with proper notification to facility administration – far beyond the time period countenanced by any medical, psychological or juvenile detention best practice. Experts (even including the SVJC psychiatrist), advocates, and detention staff members all agree that these punitive measures result in lasting harm to youth. Stringent federal standards are needed to ensure safe and humane conditions in those states where the regulations are lax. We urge the Commission to study the extent to which immigrant children in ORR custody are in facilities which are adhering to weak state regulations, and, consistent with the Attorney General’s Report and well- established professional standards, to advocate for alternatives to detention and, where that may not be possible, for federal policies and practices that require immigrant children to be placed in trauma-informed environments that strictly limit the use of restraints, solitary confinement or other essentially punitive and harmful approaches. (emphasis added).

This seems like the least we can do.

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