March 28, 2012 STATEMENT — LIRS Statement for Hearing: “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards”

Press Contact: Jon Pattee, LIRS Assistant Director for Media Relations

BALTIMORE, March 28, 2012 – “I never thought the United States would put me in jail after I fled my country to save my life. How can anyone think we’re enjoying ourselves?” asked Deborah[1], who escaped from Ghana and who was immediately detained upon her arrival to the United States by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Before an immigration judge granted her with asylum, ICE transferred her to three different detention centers in New Jersey and denied her medical requests to treat her rheumatism and facial burns. “People on the outside just don’t know what it’s like,” said Deborah.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national organization established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, is deeply troubled by the overuse of detention and calls on Congress and the Administration to use immigration detention only when necessary – only when an individual poses a risk of flight or a threat to the community – and to expand more cost-effective alternatives to detention programs. For individuals who must be held in custody, ICE needs to have a set of enforceable standards that ensures safety, dignity, and fairness.

Last month ICE released its 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). The 2011 standards are a positive step towards improving basic detention conditions. They provide improved medical standards, greater protections against sexual assault, increased access to families and legal representatives, among other changes. However, they are not enforceable and will not apply to most ICE jails used to house detainees.

Some members of Congress have suggested that these standards represent a “holiday” for detainees. The 2011 PBNDS, like the 2000 and 2008 standards, are inappropriately based on the correctional models used for criminal populations. “Any set of detention standards that includes provisions for shackling pregnant women is no ‘holiday,’” said Leslie E. Vélez, LIRS Director for Access to Justice. “Using a restrictive, correctional framework is unacceptable for anyone held for civil violations who does not pose a threat.”

ICE updated its national detention standards because it acknowledged the need to provide better care to the growing number of detainees in its vast network of privately run jails, federal prisons, and county facilities. From fiscal year (FY) 2000 – 2010, the number of immigrants detained annually grew from 167,000 to over 363,000. Many of the noncitizens held in detention are refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture or human trafficking.

Since 2003 ICE’s inadequate medical care contributed to the deaths of more than 100 immigrants in custody.[2] More than 180 sexual abuse complaints have been reported in ICE detention centers since 2007.[3] Media reports revealed that ICE officials tried to hide the details of the mistreatment of immigration detainees.[4] Non-profit organizations and faith and community leaders also spoke out in the need for reform.

In 2007 LIRS and the Women’s Refugee Commission released Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, a report which investigated the jailing of immigrant families in the T. Don Hutto Residential Treatment Center in Taylor, TX and the Berks County Shelter Care Facility in Leesport, PA.[5] It documented disturbing incidents of ICE failing to meet the basic needs of immigrants in its custody:

– A woman asked for medical attention because her child was suffering from repeated vomiting. The staff said that they would need to see the vomit to believe that her son was sick.

– A mother submitted a request for her son to see a dentist because he had a toothache. After waiting three weeks for an appointment, the dentist pulled his rotten tooth with no anesthesia.

– A pregnant woman did not receive her first prenatal exam until she was seven months pregnant.

– Another pregnant woman recounted that she was given an X-Ray to screen for TB without a lead protective cover even though she told the technician that she was five months pregnant.

From 2007 to 2008, the immigration task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Conference of Bishops visited immigration detention facilities in Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington.[6] The bishops were dismayed at what they heard and observed, expressed grave concerns regarding detainees’ access to medical care along with the number of deaths in detention, and urged DHS and Congress to reform the immigration detention system.

In August 2009, in response to the calls for reform, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton announced plans to overhaul the ICE immigration detention system.[7] Later in 2009 Dr. Dora Schriro, DHS’s Special Advisor on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Detention & Removal, released a comprehensive report which cited the need to improve conditions in immigration detention facilities and recommend increased oversight of the system.[8] The report also acknowledged that ICE used jail-like criminal incarceration too frequently on non-violent and vulnerable populations who pose no threat to the community and should be released from custody.

In an October 2011 report, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, LIRS called for the adoption of a risk assessment tool that allows U.S. immigration officers to make custody and release decisions based on the unique circumstances of each individual’s case.[9] The tool would recommend the detention of immigrants convicted of serious crimes or who pose a risk to the public. Other migrants, who do not pose a flight or public safety risk, could be placed into community support programs or required to follow other supervision requirements – options that are smarter, cheaper, and more humane.

“This year alone, immigration detention will cost U.S. taxpayers more $2 billion,” added Eric B. Sigmon, LIRS Director for Advocacy. “It is in the interest of the U.S. government and taxpayers to ensure that the U.S. immigration detention system provides basic care and treatment for all people navigating the immigration process.”

LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.

If you have any questions about this statement, please contact Eric B. Sigmon, Director for Advocacy, at (202) 626-7943 or via email at

Additional LIRS Detention Resources

– The March 14, 2012 press release on the new Karnes County Civil Detention Center may be read here:

– The December 15, 2011 press release expressing concerns with increased FY 2012 immigration detention spending may be read here:

– The October 2011 report, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, may be read here:

– The May 24, 2011 statement on H.R. 1932, the Keep Our Communities Safe Act, may be read here:

– The December 22, 2009 statement applauding ICE’s parole policy reforms may be read here:

– The October 7, 2009 statement in support of DHS’s announcement to overhaul the immigration detention system may be found here:

– The February 2007 LIRS and Women’s Refugee Commission report, Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, may be read here:

[1] Name has been changed to protect the woman’s identity.

[3] Elise Foley, Immigrant Detainees Report Nearly 200 Instances of Sexual Abuse, The Huffington Post, (Oct. 21, 2011).

[4] Nina Bernstein, Official Hid Truth of Immigrant Deaths in Jail, The New York Times, (Jan. 9, 2010).

[5] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Refugee Commission, Locking Up Family Families: The Detention of Immigrant Families (Feb. 2007).

[6] ELCA Bishops Visit Immigration Detention Centers, ELCA News Service, (Jun. 10, 2008).

[7] ICE Announces Major Reforms to the Immigration Detention System, (Aug. 6, 2009).

[8] Dr. Dora Schriro, Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (Oct. 6, 2009).

[9] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy (Oct. 2011).