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Congress Must Take the Lead to Hold Department of Homeland Security Accountable for the Humane Treatment of Immigrants

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center applauds the introduction of new legislation that would provide important human rights protections for more than 400,000 immigrant men, women, and children in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Protect Citizens from Unlawful Detention Act, sponsored by Senators Gillibrand (D-NY), Kennedy (D-MA), and Menendez (D-NJ), establishes minimum standards of treatment for U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and immigrants who are detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A second bill, the Strong Safe Treatment, Avoiding Needless Deaths, and Abuse Reduction in the Detention System (STANDARDS) Act, sets minimum detention standards and requires DHS to ensure that laws concerning the treatment of detainees are properly enforced.

“DHS refuses to take steps to improve the oversight of the detention system, even as it expands Bush-era enforcement policies that lead to further growth of the already bloated detention population. It has become clear that the only way to ensure that the U.S. immigrant detention system abides by basic standards of human rights is for Congress to pass legislation that will hold DHS accountable,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, director, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center.

In July, the government released thousands of pages of previously undisclosed detention center inspection reports showing a pattern of failure by DHS to provide for the basic needs and human rights of detainees, including access to attorneys and basic medical care. But even as the detention system’s human rights record fell under scrutiny, DHS rejected a petition for the agency to create legally binding detention regulations that would hold county jails and detention centers accountable for their treatment of immigrant detainees.

“These Senate bills provide Congress an opportunity to begin to fix a broken system, and ensure that DHS is held accountable to basic American ideals of human rights and due process,” McCarthy said. “The current performance-based detention standards that govern the detention system cover important human rights protections for men, women, and children in DHS custody. Unfortunately, as the government’s own records have shown us, those standards are rarely enforced. This legislation would address that problem.”

The Protect Citizens from Unlawful Detention Act includes provisions to ensure that detainees understand their legal rights, allows for judicial review of the detention of U.S. citizens and vulnerable individuals during immigration enforcement actions, and require reporting and oversight of enforcement practices and their harmful impact on U.S. citizens.

The STANDARDS Act would create enforceable regulations governing critical basic standards of treatment for detainees. The bill includes provisions that would:

  • Provide detainees access to adequate medical and mental health, and dental care, including comprehensive intake screenings
  • Provide an administrative process for handling appeals of denials of medical treatment
  • Restrict transfers of detainees to another facility if such transfer would impair an attorney-client relationship, prejudice the detainee’s legal case, or negatively impact the detainee’s health
  • Ensure detainees have adequate access to telephones
  • Prevent physical and sexual abuse of detainees
  • Limit the use of solitary confinement and strip searches to situations where it is necessary for security and eliminates the use of these techniques on children
  • Require detention facilities to be acquired in locations where free or low-cost legal representation is available
  • Provide adequate translation services to ensure the safety and security of the facility
  • Provide detainees with access legal information, including an on-site law library
  • Allow legal, family and religious visitors in detention facilities
  • Ensure detainees get an hour of recreation per day

Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. For more information visit