The prolonged use of solitary confinement, ice-cold detention cells (known as hieleras, the Spanish word for “freezers” or “ice-boxes”), inhumane and degrading treatment by staff, and intentional legal obstacles are all designed to frustrate migrants, the groups said, and are consistent with the definition of torture.
Attempts at reform have made immigration detention worse, the groups added. They called ICE’s profit-driven jail system — most of the agency’s roughly 200 facilities are privately contracted — a costly one that does not make the community any safer and is unnecessary to ensure attendance at immigration hearings.
The root problem is “performative compliance” between ICE, which is a government agency, and its privately-contracted inspector, Nakamoto Group. Based in Jefferson, Maryland, the firm describes itself as a “small, disadvantaged, minority, women-owned business.”
In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, excoriated both Nakamoto Group and ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight for conducting “useless” inspections that “breeze by the standards.”
AVID and ILL agreed.
“Where different organizational forces seek to give the illusion that they are conforming to the ‘agreed’ rules of delivery,” their report stated, “the theater of compliance via regulation that arises in the public-private partnership guarantees that any outcomes that could affect the profitability of the partnership are concealed.”
Nakamoto began working with ICE to inspect its detention facilities in 2007. In January 2020, the firm finished an inspection of Otero County Processing Center (OCPC) in Chaparral, New Mexico, issuing a report that said the facility met all government regulated standards and that OCPC was “clean and orderly ... relaxed ... [and had] no areas of concern or significant observations.”
But just four months earlier, OCPC detainees had contacted journalists to say they were contemplating mass suicide to protest conditions at the facility. Within the preceding year, over 250 grievances had been filed alleging inadequate medical treatment, legal access, living conditions, holding cells, and more. Detainees told interviewers that due process was a fiction at the facility and degradation the norm.
In its report, however, Nakamoto Group said it had conducted over 100 interviews and found “without exception” that all those queried said they felt safe at OCPC.
ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said the agency “was firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody,” providing “several levels of oversight in order to ensure that the detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the Utah-based company that owns and runs OCPC for ICE, promised that “there’s nothing more important than the safety and well-being of our employees and those in our care.”
“[Staff] treat those in care with dignity, respect, and the highest level of professionalism,” MTC emphasized.
The company claimed to know nothing of the mass-suicide threat or the response to it, which reportedly involved “threats, pepper spray, and disruptive searches in which detained individuals’ personal belongings, including court documents, were taken.”
To gather that and all other information in the January 2021 report, AVID and ILL had interviews conducted by attorneys and volunteers from the El Paso Immigration Collaboration (EPIC) with 232 of the facility’s more than 1,000 detainees. They expressed 153 concerns about their experience in ICE detention — from the hieleras to the Migrant Protection Protocols known as the “Remain in Mexico” program put in place by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, and on through the entire asylum-seeking process.
Investigators found that the complaints covered 14 different categories in three procedural groups: pre-ICE detention (19%), ICE detention (57%), and legal issues while in detention (24%).
The most common categories were medical issues (37%) and due process matters (17%) while in ICE detention and detention conditions (14%) in pre-ICE detention.
“Interviewees described conditions that felt aimed at wearing people down and seemed to directly undermine the stated justification for their detention,” the report observed.
Immigrants apprehended in the U.S. by officers with federal Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are first placed in the hieleras to await transportation to detention centers.
Detention is not mandatory, however, since immigration offenses are a matter for civil courts and not criminal proceedings. The decision to detain immigrants is made for the safety of the community and to ensure that immigrants appear for their legal hearings.
These “icebox-cold” cells are designed without beds or any type of privacy because they are meant only to serve as overnight holding facilities. Some house well over 100 detainees in areas designed for 44. On average, detainees placed in one remained for two weeks, though one stayed almost two months. Detainees are provided a mylar blanket, must sleep on the floor, and — without a sink — cannot brush their teeth for weeks.
From there, immigrants are transported to detention centers. Until the policy was ended in June 2018, families were broken up and children are taken from their parents. Since then, depending on available space, the family may be sent back to Mexico to await proceedings.
If transferred to a detention center, detainees said that the facilities did not address their medical needs adequately. Those interviewed at OCPC said they were not provided medication for their conditions, including heart disease and HIV. OCPC is designated as an all-male facility, but transgender women are housed there as well. They complained about a lack of necessary medical attention as well as abuse and harassment from the men housed with them.
Detainees also complained of an over-reliance on solitary confinement — MTC calls it “the use of special housing units” — to enforce discipline.
Whereas Nakamoto Group reported complaints from just four to eight percent of detainees, the AVID and ILL report said the rate was much higher — 66 percent — which more closely reflects nationwide trends in ICE facilities. Detainees said that instances of abuse and cover-ups were the rule and not the exception, with conditions causing more mental health issues, including self-harm and suicide.
Immigrants say that all of these conditions constitute torture and harassment. Worse, they have been purposely designed to be frustrating and antagonistic in order to dissuade people from seeking asylum in the U.S. The report concludes that outside inspectors simply rubber stamp conditions so as not to adversely affect their profits from the organization.
Advocates say that it was immigration reforms after 2001 — when outside inspectors began their work — that initiated the current cycle of performative compliance. So new reforms are not needed, they add. What is needed is abolition of immigration detention in its entirety. As the AVID and ILL report concluded, “Immigration detention does not make communities safe. It is costly and it is unnecessary for its stated purpose of ensuring that individuals attend their immigration proceedings.”
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