Coloradans say Obama immigrant detention reform falls short

AURORA — As they have once a month for six months now, a crowd of about 50 people stood outside the GEO Group’s Aurora Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center Monday night, in a cold rain, to protest its expansion. The center will nearly quadruple in size this year.

This immigrant detention center in Aurora is currently expanding from 400 to 1,500 beds. (Katie Redding)
This immigrant detention center in Aurora is currently expanding from 400 to 1,500 beds. (Photo by Katie Redding/The Colorado Independent)

The protest coincided with the Obama administration’s release Tuesday afternoon of an internal report criticizing the nation’s immigrant detention system. It’s a comprehensive report that details the failures of a rapidly growing detention system that borrows from the criminal justice system and leans on private security firms to deal with a largely nonviolent, noncriminal population. But some Coloradans say the plans for reform don’t go far enough.

Aurora center doing booming business

The detention center in Aurora is tucked inconspicuously into a suburban warehouse district off Peoria Street just down the street from U-STOR Self Storage and Tires for Less. The center’s signs bear the ICE acronym and the euphemistic words “processing center.” Most nearby residents don’t even know this is an immigrant detention center, said Jennifer Piper, Interfaith Organizing Director for Immigrant Rights at the American Friends Service Committee, which sponsored the vigil. She knows. She’s knocked on their doors.

The protesters, however, are tuned into developments at the center. They note that it’s in the process of nearly quadrupling in size — expanding from 400 to 1500 beds.

Piper pointed out that 66 percent of detainees have been charged with no crimes. Locking up immigrants like criminals costs taxpayers a fortune and does unnecessary damage to families and communities.

“Imagine that one day you are home with your family, and the next day your kids return from school to find that you’ve been placed for an indefinite period in a detention facility with limited visitation rights,” wrote U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat representing the 2nd Congressional District, at Huffington Post’s Denver local site.

In a July edition of CNN’s Freshman Year, Polis visited the Aurora facility, noting sarcastically: “This is where we take, like, perfectly innocent people and we take them away from their families. At taxpayer expense.”


“The implication for immigrants in Colorado — both documented and undocumented — is pretty huge when we think of the far-reaching implications of tripling beds,” Piper said. “It will be pretty devastating.”

GEO, the for-profit company who owns the detention center, is the latest incarnation of the security corporation Wackenhut, which has drawn major charges of neglect and abuse for a decade. GEO receives more than $133 a day per prisoner held at the Aurora facility. The company, which runs prisons in the U.S. and internationally and was tangentially implicated in the recent “Lord of the Flies” abuses at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was nominated one of Forbes’s Best 400 Big Companies in America (pdf) in 2008, for registering a 22 percent return over a five-year period.

Federal report critical of system

As the protesters gathered Monday night, the Obama administration prepared to release a comprehensive and critical report of the nation’s immigrant detention program, written last month by Dora B. Schriro, who previously oversaw the ICE’s proposed overhaul of the program.

The report, released Tuesday afternoon, describes the nation’s detention program as a costly and unwieldy system of individually run centers, operating with inadequate government oversight and numerous inconsistencies.

Among the problems, according to the report, is that the system is designed for criminals, despite the fact that the majority of detainees have each only incurred a civil immigration violation.

“As a matter of law, Immigration Detention is unlike Criminal Detention,” states the report. “Yet Immigration Detention and Criminal Incarceration detainees tend to be seen by the public as comparable, and both confined populations are typically managed in similar ways … With only a few exceptions, the facilities that ICE uses to detain aliens were built, and operate, as jails and prisons to confine pre-trial and sentenced felons.”

The report also notes that detention centers tend to control prisoners according to correctional standards, which are far more restricting and expensive than necessary to manage most detainees.

The report went on to criticize detainee’s access to exercise facilities, medical care, legal counsel, religious worship and family visits. Schriro noted that attorneys have reported problems contacting their clients by mail and accessing them in the facility. Attorneys also have complained about their clients being transferred to locations prohibitively far away, with no notice.

Schriro pointed out that many detainees’ only access to exercise is an outdoor “run.” She noted that many of the facilities are located far from prisoners’ families, and that phone calls from the centers are prohibitively expensive. She argued that the intake process does not allow centers to reliably identify health or mental health issues — and that detainees with mental illness are often placed in segregation cells originally designed to punish prisoners. She also contended that religious requests — for texts or diets, or to keep one’s hair cut a certain way, for example — are not always honored.

The report blames the system’s failings, in part, on a rapid expansion of the immigration detention system. In 1995, it notes, the United States had fewer than 7,500 beds for detainees. Today, it has more than 30,000. The immigration detention program is currently the largest detention system in the nation, supervising 378,528 aliens in 2008 — and on track to hit the same numbers in 2009.

Detention systems are different than prison or incarceration systems, the report notes, in that detention is by definition temporary, a system ideally centered more on processing individuals for release than on holding them.

Critics suggest alternatives

Critics of the nation’s immigration detention program often point out that many successful alternatives exist.

“Systems that include reporting and electronic monitoring have been found to yield an appearance rate before immigration courts of well over 90 percent, wrote Polis in his Huffington Post column. “They are effective and significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $12 per day compared to the $99 per day in the average detention center.”

Schriro’s report notes the detention alternatives, and it advocates for the development of a rubric to more uniformly assign alternatives. But it doesn’t go as far as suggesting the expansion of alternative programs in lieu of detention. In fact, in an interview this week with The New York Times, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, promised to build more detention centers — two from scratch, and others in converted nursing homes and hotels.

And for that reason, Piper says her Quaker nonprofit still isn’t satisfied.

“Why detain ‘nonthreatening’ people at all? Why not use community options?” she wrote in an email.

Polis also pushed for alternatives. In a statement on the floor Tuesday, he said he was “encouraged” by Napolitano’s commitment to reforming the immigration detention center.

But then he pushed for alternatives to the detention system, particularly for “special populations” such as parents with minor children, the ill and injured, women, non-violent asylum-seekers and members of vulnerable populations

“I hope to see meaningful changes being made at ICE,” he concluded, pointedly, “beginning with the forthcoming announcement of an expansive, nationwide Alternatives to Detention program.”

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