While the Obama Administration seems to be making some effort to curtail the human rights violations against immigrants that were rampant under the Bush Administration, the pace of change is glacial. The good news is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced yesterday several reforms to the immigration detention system. Those who had hoped for a reversal of policies authorizing broad detention of immigrants or even a private right of action to enforce detention standards will be sorely disappointed. Instead we will see a "centralization" of immigration detention, moving immigrants out of county jails and private for-profit prisons into detention centers run by the government. A new Office of Detention Policy and Planning will be led by Dr. Dora Schriro, (pictured below right) the former head of the Arizona Department of Corrections and a progressive with scholarly leanings who holds a law degree, an MA in psychology, and a PhD in education. Along with experts in healthcare administration and detention management, Dr. Schriro will be in charge of designing the new immigration detention system. New oversight mechanisms include a medical expert to review medical complaints, detention managers to oversee conditions of custody, an Office of Detention Oversight to conduct routine and random inspections and investigate detainee complaints, and advisory groups of local and national organizations. Perhaps the best piece of news is that the Hutto family detention center will be closed -- but don't get too excited; instead of establishing a policy against detaining families, they will be sent to the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania. (See prior posts on detention of immigrant women and families here, here, here, and here.) While this is a cultural sea change in the executive's approach to immigration detention, it's short on enforceable standards and long on discretion, and fails to address the fundamental question of whether many of these immigrants should be eligible for release from detention while they await a final determination in their immigration case, and whether others, including young children and pregnant and nursing mothers, should be detained at all.
The administration still needs to move forward quickly in fixing asylum law's material support bar, about which I've blogged here. This tragically broad law renders ineligible for entry to the United States anyone who has provided, even involuntarily, a good or service to virtually any armed group. According to a recent report, since Obama took office, nearly 2000 immigrants have been denied refugee or asylum status or a green card because of the bar. So, for example,
"Anna,"a middle-aged Iraqi mother of two teenagers was deemed a terrorist and barred refuge in the U.S. despite her work for the State Department as an economic development adviser. [She] is seen as a supporter of terrorism because of her work for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a mainstream Iraqi political party that the current president of Iraq belongs to. She's no longer active in the party. Anonymous callers have warned her that they'd take revenge for her work for the U.S. government. Now, she wonders in a phone call from Iraq punctuated by sirens and static, "What will be my future?"It's high time for the Obama administration to answer that question.