Friday, July 15, 2005

SKATING ON THIN ICE

By William Fisher

As a nervous Congress was voting billions to make America safer in the wake of the London bombings, a nationally recognized authority on immigration detention charged that the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants are being ignored.

Mark Dow, author of “American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons”, told IPS, “Aside from some haggling over how many thousands more detention beds will be funded, the immigration detention system -- run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- is simply not being discussed.”

He called for appointment of an independent ombudsman to monitor DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compliance with the law, independent monitoring of the detention system, and legislation creating a right to counsel for immigration detainees.

Earlier this week, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a major reorganization of his huge two-year-old department. In remarks delivered to an auditorium crowded with department officials, terrorism experts and others with a stake in department policy, Chertoff identified his top priorities as preparation for catastrophic attacks, information sharing with state and local partners and transportation security, along with overhauling immigration and restructuring the department's intelligence unit.

Chertoff has been a strong advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, specifically enhancing border security through a guest worker program. But Dow does not see immigration reform as essential to improving the treatment of immigrants.

“Unnecessarily jailing immigrants who are not ‘doing time’, mistreating them, and denying them legal help has nothing to do with immigration policy -- or with ‘securing the homeland’, he told IPS.

Chertoff’s strategy of coupling controversial immigration policy with ‘helping win the war on terror’, could help President Bush's stalled proposal for a guest worker program and enhanced border security. Similarly, linking the guest worker plan to calls for tougher border controls could neutralize conservative Republicans in Congress who believe that enforcement must come first.

But none of these strategies, Dow said, will do anything to eliminate what he sees as the excessive and unnecessary secrecy that shrouds the immigration detention system. “Unfortunately the prediction I made in my book that this system would move even further from scrutiny as the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was folded into Homeland Security seems to be proving accurate.”

Quoting Sec. Chertoff’s statement that that illegal border crossing "undermines respect for the rule of law," Dow said, “If he's concerned about the rule of law, he should announce his support for an independent ombudsman to monitor DHS and ICE compliance with the law. Chertoff is responsible, for example, for the fact that ICE continues to violate Supreme Court decisions ordering the release of certain long-term detainees.”

He said Chertoff should also ask Congress to “establish independent monitoring of the detention system. And I'm not talking about an audit from within the agency, or an audit by a contracted company paid by the agency it's reporting to.”

Dow recalled that in February 2005, Chertoff said, "Mistreatment of detainees . . . is wholly unacceptable." Dow called on Congress -- and community activists -- to “hold him to that. He is responsible for rampant mistreatment. He should recommend legislation creating a right to counsel for immigration detainees.”

Dow sought to debunk the notion that mistreatment of immigrants was a product of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “In the early 1990s, INS officials at the Miami airport issued a statement conflating poor people, drug dealers, and terrorists in one breath. There was been an immigration agency culture of discrimination and violence long before Chertoff headed up the post-9/11 mistreatment of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian detainees. I see DHS moving further and further in that direction, regardless of bureaucratic reorganization.”

In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff, then a senior official at the Department of Justice (DOJ), played a major role in orchestrating the wholesale roundups and detentions of hundreds of mostly Arab and other Muslim immigrants. A report by the DOJ’s Inspector General confirmed that many were held incommunicado in jail-like settings, abused and denied access to lawyers and families.

Meanwhile, a major human rights advocacy group, Human Rights First (HRF), said it welcomed one of the few immigration proposals in the proposed DHS reorganization plan – creation of a new senior refugee policy position.

“Secretary Chertoff should be commended for recognizing the need to improve the coordination of asylum policy across the Department’s various bureaus,” said Eleanor Acer, director of HRF’s asylum program. “

The United States has a long and proud tradition of providing refuge for people who flee from persecution and oppression, and it is essential for the Department to make clear that it will protect the lives of these people as it fulfills its other important responsibilities.”

Ms. Acer added, “Ultimately however, whether or not this position will be effective will depend on how much authority this position is given.”

In announcing the DHS reorganization plan, Chertoff acknowledged that “Immigration policy is about more than keeping illegal migrants out. Our heritage and our national character inspire us to create a more welcoming society for those who lawfully come to our shores to work, learn and visit.”

He said he is working with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice “to ease the path for those who wish to visit, study, and conduct business in the United States.”

The current system, he said, “leaves a negative first impression of our nation with our new fellow countrymen. Worse yet, it causes unnecessary security risks because people enjoy temporary residence while we are completing the screening process. Restructuring this process to enhance security and improve customer service will be an important part of our upcoming agenda.”

Earlier in the week, the Senate passed a $31.8-billion Homeland Security spending bill, and Chertoff testified before a committee in the House of Representatives, where Democrats engaged him in heated exchanges regarding allocation of funds.

"The Bush administration should put forward real policy proposals to plug our homeland security vulnerabilities, instead of just moving people's offices around and changing the department's stationery," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

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