NEWARK, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today provided the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants with a report on immigration detention conditions in New Jersey to help inform him of conditions affecting immigrants during his fact-finding mission in the United States.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Jorge Bustamante, is conducting a three-week fact-finding mission at the invitation of the U.S. government and has been traveling across the country since April 30 to meet with dozens of human rights and immigrants groups. His visit is the first broad-based international inquiry of its kind into allegations of human rights abuses in the United States.
Between March and July 2006, in response to numerous complaints about conditions of detention, the ACLU-NJ undertook a series of interviews with detainees in the county jails in an effort to shed light on the conditions of confinement. The project resulted in a report, Behind Bars (194k PDF): The Failure of the Department of Homeland Security to Ensure Adequate Treatment of Immigration Detainees.
In New Jersey, five counties currently hold immigrant detainees: Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Bergen and Sussex. The Passaic County Jail discontinued its contract with ICE at the end of 2005, a few months after the Department of Homeland Security began auditing the facility. In addition, a private contractor, the Corrections Corporation of America, operates the Elizabeth Detention Center in Union County.
Approximately, 1,000 immigrant detainees are confined in New Jersey facilities. They come from a range of countries, including Egypt, Albania, the former Soviet Union, Ghana, Pakistan, Haiti, Gambia, Trinidad, Jordan, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Jamaica, Guyana, Afghanistan, Belize, Sudan and Mauritania.
The ACLU-NJ interviewed detainees ranging in age from a 58-year-old man in a wheelchair to a 17-year-old youth who reported being confined to his cell for 16 hours a day. One detainee interviewed by the ACLU-NJ has been in immigration detention for five years.
Most detainees are men, though the ACLU-NJ did interview women, including a 23-year-old, who was a Rutgers University honor student, detained for a visa error made by her mother when she arrived in this country as a toddler. Another woman, a 36-year-old confined to the Middlesex County Jail, reported that detainees are subject to frequent lockdown, including a lockdown that lasted for more than five days.
The ACLU-NJ also has received letters from detainees, including a June 2006 petition signed by 103 immigrant detainees in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution, which the Special Rapporteur was scheduled to visit on May 14. Detainees there outlined numerous problems, including reports of physical abuse by jail officers.
The ACLU-NJ's report describes a range of consistent and pervasive concerns in detention facilities throughout the state. Among these problems are: physical and verbal abuse, aggravated by racial and ethnic slurs; inadequate and delayed medical care; frequent and sudden transfers between detention facilities in the state and sometimes to other states, which makes visits by lawyers and family difficult if not altogether impossible; restricted or limited phone and library access; frequent use of lockdown, which confines detainees to their cells; improper limitations on or denial of ability to practice religion; and commingling of immigrant detainees (who are civil detainees) with the general (criminal) inmate population.
To begin to address these problems, the ACLU-NJ makes the following recommendations, which it urged the Special Rapporteur to discuss with federal officials with whom he will meet this week:
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) standards regarding immigration detention are now only guidelines. These standards must be strengthened to meet human rights principles and become enforceable regulations so that breaches and violations of these standards may be legally challenged by detainees themselves or through their representatives.
- To ensure compliance with the standards, the ICE district offices in New York and New Jersey must exercise greater oversight of detention conditions and treatment of detainees. At a minimum, they should conduct inspections of all county jails and other facilities holding immigration detainees once every six months.
- Every effort should be made to prevent the commingling of immigration detainees, particularly asylum seekers and women, with the general inmate population.
- Given the human and financial costs of detention, ICE should explore noncustodial alternatives such as parole, supervised release to family members, regular reporting requirements or bond options.
- International law unequivocally mandates the humane treatment of all detainees, regardless of the reason for their detention. In particular, the detention of asylum seekers violates the laws and conventions -- such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- to which the United States is a signatory. Consequently, asylum seekers should be detained only to the extent necessary to verify an asylum seeker's identity and to determine whether the individual is asserting a legitimate claim for asylum.
The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council with the mandate to monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries, including the United States, and on human rights violations worldwide.
Special Rapporteur Bustamante will conclude the fact-finding mission in Washington, D.C. from May 15 to May 18, when he will meet with nongovernmental organizations and federal officials. He will use the information gathered during this fact-finding mission to issue an official report to the Human Rights Council. The conclusions and recommendations provided by the Special Rapporteur may be used to apply pressure on the U.S. government to rectify any human rights violations.