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Immigration Attorneys Fight for Reform

By Anna Marie Macías

February 18, 2009

Over the past five years, over 80 immigrants have died in the custody of U.S. immigration agents. Immigrant advocates suggest that some of those deaths might not have occurred if the detainees had received medical care. Recurring complaints of mistreatment of detained immigrants prompted Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and a bi-partisan group of seven other senators to propose the “Safe Detention and Asylum Act” in June 2008.

Sen. Lieberman noted that the rising number of immigrant arrests in recent years has been accompanied by an increase in charges of mistreatment. “In the time it takes to determine if detainees have the right to live in the United States, we must ensure that they are housed in safe and humane conditions where they receive appropriate medical care,” Sen. Lieberman said. “We must also implement fair procedures to determine if detention is necessary, and increase funding for secure alternatives to detention.”

The Safe Detention and Asylum Act would establish standards for the treatment of immigrants detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Specifically, the bill calls for:

  • fair and humane treatment
  • solitary confinement limitations
  • an investigation of grievances by detainees
  • access to telephones and legal assistance
  • translation capabilities
  • medical care and a greater regard for vulnerable populations
  • standards for non-criminal detainees
  • training of detention personnel
  • reporting of detainee deaths

If passed, the Act would establish an “Office of Detention Oversight” and release some detainees under supervision. It would give “legal orientation” to detainees who might qualify for a visa and would promote the construction of “less restrictive”Immigration detention centers to house adults and children. The Act also would expedite the removal process rather than leave immigrants in detention for long periods.

The 11,000 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) have advocated for these and other reforms for many years. As the nation’s experts on immigration law, AILA members try to promote fairness and a respect for the law in the national immigration debate.

For example, AILA lawyers have not stood idly by as state and municipal governments have passed some 1,200 local ordinances and laws targeting undocumented immigrants. These laws try to limit immigrants’ access to rental housing, jobs and public services and push to give more immigration enforcement authority to local and state police. Courts have rejected many of these new laws as unconstitutional.

The U.S. Constitution specifically gives the U.S. Congress exclusive power in the field of immigration law. Kathleen Campbell Walker, president of AILA, said state and local lawmakers are wrong to try to circumvent Congress by passing laws affecting immigrants. “Federal law is being attacked,” said Campbell Walker. “State legislatures have stepped where federal legislators have dared not tread to reform immigration law. There is a big danger in trying to preempt federal law. It makes it practically impossible to know what we have to do state-by-state or city-by-city to comply with the law. In the end, it can really backfire and cause us to have more lawlessness.” Campbell Walker noted as an example that restrictive local ordinances tend to make immigrants more reluctant to report crimes.

AILA has published a free guide for elected officials titled Navigating the Immigration Debate: A Guide for State & Local Policymakers and Advocates. The guide is available on AILA’s website. It gives elected officials facts on the “hot topics” of the immigration debate, such as “English-only policies,” housing restrictions, and efforts to limit undocumented immigrants’ right to a driver’s license. Laws that try to regulate who can or cannot live in the United States—while they may appear to address issues of housing or employment—are unconstitutional if they purport to regulate immigrants or immigration, a power exclusive to Congress. 

Last year, AILA members testified before Congress and met with the DHS to insist that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) act humanely in making arrests. Complaints of systematic mistreatment by federal agents, such as requiring that detainees use the bathroom while handcuffed, have been dropped since AILA first met with immigration officials.

Julie L. Myers, the assistant secretary of Homeland Security who oversees ICE, met with AILA to discuss the fair treatment of detainees. The meeting made a difference, said Lori Chesser, an AILA member in Des Moines, Iowa. In recent enforcement actions, ICE officials have even called AILA members to warn them that a worksite raid is about to take place. “AILA can’t take all the credit,” Chesser said. “Around the country, people advocating for immigrants did complain a lot to ICE.” For now, Chesser noted, the government seems to be listening.

Anna Marie Macías is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.

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