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On Thursday, September 26, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing about expansion of the abusive and already sprawling immigration detention system. Among those testifying are individuals who have been locked in immigration jails, former government officials who played a role in the system's rapid expansion, and NIJC Director of Policy Heidi Altman. The harsh and neglectful conditions inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and the system's profit-fueled growth in recent years, are coming to light through congressional oversight like today's hearing, and reporting such as today's CQ Roll Call coverage, which features new documents that came to light through NIJC's Transparency Project and show how private prison companies profit from ICE detention and their relationship with local governments.

Read Heidi's oral testimony below:

Chairwoman Lofgren, Vice Chairwoman Jayapal, Ranking Member Buck, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

Photo of NIJC Policy Director testifying before House Judiciary Committee
NIJC Policy Director Heidi Altman testifies before the House Judiciary Committee September 26, 2019, hearing on the expansion of the ICE detention system.

My name is Heidi Altman and I serve as the director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a legal services and advocacy organization working to advance the human rights of all immigrants. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here today, and to be following the testimony of those who have survived the destructive system that is the topic of this hearing. NIJC has for decades endeavored to advocate for the legal and human rights of immigrants in immigration jails throughout the Midwest and nationally. These experiences have brought us to the inexorable conclusion that the United States immigration detention system must end.

I am mindful as we sit here today of a young man named Chris, an NIJC client and lawful permanent resident of the United States who has lived here since he was 13. While his deportation case proceeds, ICE has been holding Chris without the opportunity to seek bond in a county jail in Illinois for ten months. Chris had already served his court-ordered sentence for the drug-related offenses that formed the basis of the immigration case against him. These offenses stemmed from struggles with addiction he has dealt with since childhood, when he bore primary responsibility for the care of his mother who is paralyzed from the neck down. Chris’s time in immigration detention, which unlike his criminal sentence has no set end date, has served to destabilize his family and disrupt his own recovery. We have to ask, toward what end.

Chris is one of nearly 500,000 people held by ICE this fiscal year in a detention system that is comprised of more than 200 county jails and private prisons that contract with ICE for profit. The Trump administration would have us believe that the only way to manage migration processing is by locking up those going through the process. But it hasn’t always been this way, and it does not need to be this way now. There are alternatives, smarter and cheaper and kinder alternatives, as you will hear shortly from my colleague Ms. Schikore.

The immigration detention system as we know it today constitutes a relatively new experiment in American history. In the mid-1950s, in fact, the United States government intentionally rejected the institutional use of detention for migration processing, and this move was widely heralded as a marker of forward progress. This forward progress halted in the 1980s, however, when the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service adopted a policy of the mass detention of arriving Haitian refugees and explicitly named as its goal the deterrence of future refugees, putting the United States in violation of its international and domestic legal obligations. Yet the system took root, and through the 1980s and 1990s, the same political winds contributing to the mass incarceration of communities of color in the United States fueled the expansion of the immigration detention system into for-profit prisons and county jails.

The Trump administration’s commitment to expanding this already bloated system was signaled from nearly day one. The White House’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 sought $2.7 billion to ramp up detention capacity to 51,379 people daily, a number they have already surpassed. This astonishing growth has been achieved in direct violation of congressional intent through the transfer and reprogramming of funds across agencies, and largely driven by the for-profit prison industry.

This system that is so rapidly expanding is designed for impunity. There are no formal or enforceable regulations providing the minimal standards of care for those detained by ICE. DHS’s own Inspector General has repeatedly sounded alarms regarding the inadequacy and corruption in the contracting and inspections systems governing ICE detention.

As a result, abuses persist with little recourse for those harmed. Medical negligence by ICE and its contractors is responsible for about half of all deaths in custody, yet men and women continue to die, with no remedial measures in place. Thousands of immigrants suffer for months and even years in solitary confinement, tantamount to torture, while others are served moldy food, and hunger strikes and attempts at suicide are common. These shameful conditions are not new; they have been documented by non-governmental actors and government watchdogs and whistleblowers for decades, to little avail.

This cycle of abuse and impunity reflects our government’s failure to respect the dignity of the lives of those detained. It is shameful.

Today I urge all Members of Congress to begin doing the hard work of laying a foundation to end the use of immigration detention, and while charting that course, to finally and urgently bring meaningful accountability to a system that is designed to foster suffering.

Steps toward that end include:

  • Visit an ICE detention center in your state or district, unannounced. See for yourself, and engage with what is happening there.
  • Cut funding for ICE’s detention and enforcement account, and support restrictions in DHS’s transfer authority.
  • Support investments in non-profit community-based alternative-to-detention programs.
  • Support changes necessary to move the immigration detention facilities inspections regime out of ICE and into an independent body.
  • Support H.R. 2415, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which remedies many of the most harmful aspects of the detention system, including:
    • Ending mandatory, or no-bond, detention;
    • Ensuring a presumption of liberty rather than a presumption of detention for all immigrants; and
    • Ending the use of private prisons and county jails for immigration detention.

I look forward to working with each of you toward a more humane future.

Read NIJC's written testimony submitted to Congress for this hearing.

Watch the hearing: