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Indian American attorney hails reforms in immigration detention system

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
August 07, 2009 10:13 IST
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The Barack Obama administration's decision to improve the nation's immigration detention system including ending family detention at the T Don Hutto Residential Centre -- an erstwhile state penitentiary in Taylor, Texas -- was a major victory for Indian American attorney Vanita Gupta.

Gupta led the lawsuit against Hutto over two years ago, and exposed the inhumane conditions under which immigrant detainees, especially children of mostly asylum seekers, were incarcerated.

Gupta, staff attorney with the Racial Justice Programme of the American Civil Liberties Union, told in an interview, "I am elated -- I am really happy about it. As you know, it's a case that I've worked on for the last few years and so it's a big development that the government is closing this family centre down."

She recalled, "I filed the first complaint in federal court in March 2007 and then received the settlement in August 2007, but since then I've been very actively engaged in the monitoring the compliance in the facility."

"But our settlement was about to expire in three weeks. So, this was very welcome news that the government is actually closing the facility down," she said.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, plans are in the works to consolidate many detainees in facilities with conditions that reflect their status as non-criminals, establish more centralised authority over the system and create more direct oversight of detention centers.

The DHS also said it would stop sending families to Hutto. The lawsuit filed by the ACLU and led by Gupta on behalf of 26 children, many under the age of 10, alleged that the children were being illegally imprisoned in inhumane conditions in cells with open toilets and with hardly any schooling, while their parents awaited immigration decisions, and were often intimidated and threatened by prison guards.

The settlement agreement reached in August 2007 required Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make a number of significant improvements to the conditions inside the facility and subjected ICE to external oversight, but it was set to expire on August 29.

The ACLU had also called for the overhaul of the massive immigration detention system, which has resulted in over 90 detainee deaths since 2003. It has been estimated that DHS locks up in prisons and jails about 32,000 civil immigration detainees each day -- including several hundred immigrants from South Asia -- who are pursuing their immigration cases in the courts.

Gupta and other ACLU attorneys and advocacy groups, on behalf of immigrants, have argued that across the country, treatment of immigration detainees have been atrocious and inhumane, with many being denied critical medical care. The ACLU has called on the US Congress to approve the 'Safe Treatment, Avoiding Needless Deaths, and Abuse Reduction in the Detention System Act' that aims to prevent deaths of immigration detainees by requiring the DHS to issue detention regulations that are legally binding and enforceable.

In the interview, Gupta hailed the Obama administration for its action, saying, "I don't think that this would have happened in the previous administration, and so it's a testament to the Obama administration."

But she argued that "Hutto was just one piece of a major announcement that the government made about immigration detention reform and so I'm really excited to see that the Obama administration wants to engage in reform and acknowledges that the immigration system is broken."

"We had over 90 men and women who have died in immigration detention since 2003, and there's been a real crisis in access to medical care in these facilities. Reforms were very, very badly needed," she said.

However, Gupta added, "The question though, of course, remains in the details. There are still some pretty glaring holes in what's been proposed and so the ACLU wants to work with the Obama administration to make sure that the reforms that they are proposing are really meaningful."

Asked how she would answer critics who argue that people like her at ACLU are bleeding heart liberals and the majority of the detainees have broken the law by entering the country illegally, she says, "None of these people that we're talking about have been convicted of any crime. They are non-criminal people and a large number of them are actually in this country seeking asylum -- they are fleeing persecution in their home countries. They have valid claims, legitimate claims to be in this country and they are seeking to get legal status in this country."

Gupta said it's a tragic irony that these people "are fleeing terrible conditions from their home country, only to arrive and be detained in some terrible conditions here. In Hutto for example, whatever you say about the parents, it's their children we are talking about and America is a beacon of human rights and values and we want to make sure that people within our borders are treated in accordance with the law."

She pointed out, "The ICE itself seems to have been unaware of the fact that there were people who had died in their custody. This is like a real patchwork system where there was a lack of central accountability, and so this is part of the work we are doing."

"We are saying that the government can have immigration policies but when it comes to detention, they need to be detaining people in a humane way that is in accordance with the law and existing standards. And what we want to do is to make sure that those standards are actually enforceable so that they are meaningful to prevent problems."

But she asserted, "We are also not going to be afraid to speak out when we think there are better reforms that could be put in place. We have a Democratic administration, but it does not mean that progressive organisation should step back -- there is still a role for the organisations to make sure that we are holding to government to its burden. So, while at the end of the day I'm elated that Hutto was closed, it's just a first step."

She noted that in "immigration detention centres, there are certainly South Asian immigrants in detention."

"And, so, this is an issue that affects all of us," she argued and claimed that "there have been US citizens who have been wrongly placed in immigration detention and have not been detected for long periods of time."

Thus, Gupta reiterated that "this is an issue that affects all of us and is an issue that we have to care about because if the system goes out of control and without oversight, it basically affects all of us -- affects all our communities."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC