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Statement of Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

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Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) applauds Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) for introducing legislation late last week, the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act of 2014 (H.R. 4620), to improve standards and conditions at detention centers nationwide. The bill addresses many of NIJC’s detention priorities, including facility oversight and accountability, elimination of the bed quota, expanded use of alternatives to detention (ATDs), access to legal services, and solitary confinement.

As they stand today, detention standards are not statutorily enforceable, thereby eliminating meaningful accountability for detention centers that do not meet the minimum standards. Consequently, thousands of individuals are held in inhumane conditions. Many detainees pose little or no public safety risk and could be released while they await their hearing. Continued detention of these individuals costs taxpayers $5 million per day or $2 billion per year, and leaves thousands of families to struggle emotionally and financially. Congressman Smith’s proposed legislation improves detention conditions, helps keep families together, and:

  • Creates oversight mechanisms with meaningful accountability. The legislation requires annual inspections of all detention facilities by the Department of Homeland Security and independent third party auditors. Detention centers that score poorly on two consecutive inspections will have their contracts terminated within 60 days.
  • Eliminates the bed quota. Every day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds an average of 34,000 individuals in detention due to a congressional appropriations quota. No other law enforcement agency operates under this type of quota. Eliminating the bed quota will save taxpayer money by allowing ICE to make custody determinations based on individual circumstances rather than the need to meet an arbitrary number.
  • Expands ATD programs in all field offices. Increased use of ATDs, which cost as little as 70 cents to $17 daily, could save taxpayers $1.44 billion annually. Moreover, ATDs allow individuals who pose little to no public safety risk to return to their families and communities while they await their immigration hearing.
  • Increases access to legal services. The legislation requires future facilities be within 50 miles of a community where there is a demonstrated capacity to provide free or low-cost legal services. It also requires that all detainees receive information on their legal rights through Legal Orientation Programs.
  • Limits the use of solitary confinement. The bill stipulates that facilities should not subject detainees to solitary confinement, shackling, or strip searches unless less coercive measures are unable to ensure the safety of others. In addition, the legislation requires reporting and review after any placement in solitary confinement lasting three consecutive days or three days out of a seven-day period.

The legislation comes on the heels of a two-month hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. Detained immigrants demanded an end to arbitrary solitary confinement practices, poor treatment by guards, and inadequate meals and conditions. These problems extend beyond the NWDC to detention centers across the country.

NIJC thanks Congressman Smith for his leadership and calls on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to bring to the floor this and other immigration reforms in a comprehensive package before the August recess.