WASHINGTON – A stack of reports helps define some of the human consequences of the gnarled U.S. immigration system.
“Portrait of Injustice: The Impact of Immigration Raids on Families, Workers and Communities”; “Liberty Denied: Women Seeking Asylum Imprisoned in the United States”; and “Slipping Through the Cracks: Unaccompanied Children Detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
Wait a minute, isn’t the agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
Well, it wasn’t 10 years ago, when Human Rights Watch issued the report that remains relevant today. Even more unchanged are the conditions outlined in the report on women seeking asylum, published in April 1997 by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and the October 1998 report on the impact of immigration raids, published by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The decade-old reports illustrate that the United States didn’t get into its current immigration mess overnight. Despite changes in who controls Congress, who occupies the White House and who runs many of the relevant government offices – indeed, despite extensive restructuring of the federal agencies that deal with immigrants – some of the most compelling human dramas sound a lot like those of the 1990s.
For example, the report on the impact of immigration raids found that immigration agents regularly relied on racial and ethnic stereotyping and denied due process rights of people they encountered, both citizens and noncitizens.
In September, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union filed suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, charging workers’ rights were violated during raids at six meatpacking plants last December. Several immigrants’ rights organizations also are monitoring reports of how arrests and raids are handled around the country.
Among other findings of the 1998 report that resonate today:
– Collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities undermines community trust in police, the report found.
In the summer of 2007, after New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram ordered police agencies to start checking the immigration status of people they arrest, some local law enforcement officers said they feared the unintended consequences. One example given to The New York Times was a victim of domestic violence who might seek to have her abuser arrested, but not deported, so she decides not to call police.
– Raids destabilize families, the report said. “Losing a child, a grandchild, a spouse or a parent to deportation … is a devastating experience for many U.S. citizens and permanent residents,” the 1998 report said. “When the person deported is a primary wage earner or single parent, family separation causes serious economic consequences.”
After a sharp increase in immigration raids on workplaces in the last year, social services agencies, including local Catholic Charities programs around the country, have stepped in to try to help families destabilized by having one or more members arrested or deported, while U.S. citizen children must be cared for by friends, relatives or government agencies.
A September 2007 article in Education Week described strategies being developed by school districts with lots of immigrant families to address what happens if children’s parents are arrested and how to balance privacy concerns with cooperation with authorities.
The problems experienced by asylum-seekers also haven’t changed significantly, according to Michelle Brane, director of the detention and asylum program at the women’s commission.
The commission produced the 1997 asylum report and helped write the report on unaccompanied minors with Human Rights Watch the same year.
Brane said asylum-seekers in general, and women in particular, continue to be detained in inappropriate conditions, such as county jails where the women are kept with and treated like criminals. People who are seeking political asylum may or may not be in the United States legally, and often their only law violation is overstaying a visitor visa. But under current U.S. policy, most are detained while their applications for asylum are processed, which can take months or years.
Soon after the 1997 report came out, the federal government adopted standards for detention of asylum-seekers, Brane said. The standards call for access to attorneys and the provision of presentations on civil rights, among other things.
Although monitoring of the standards is spotty and they’re not always followed, Brane said conditions at most detention centers have improved. However, many women are still kept in jails far from where they can receive regular visits from family members or their attorneys.
The current picture of conditions outlined in the third 1990s report is brighter.
The 2002 law which created the Department of Homeland Security, including immigration enforcement, also reassigned responsibility for caring for minors who arrive in the United States alone. Now the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, is entrusted with the care of children who are caught crossing the border and cannot immediately be reunited with a parent or legal guardian.
For a follow-up report scheduled for publication in January, the women’s commission has visited 15 sites for unaccompanied minors, including foster homes, shelters and group homes, Brane said.
“There’s no question conditions are much, much better,” she said. “It used to be that kids in custody were held with the intention of simply deporting them as rapidly as possible. Now the focus is on the best interests of the child.”