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House Republicans Play Politics with Immigrants' Lives in Wed. Hearing

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TO: Editorial Boards

FR: America’s Voice Education Fund

RE: House Republicans Play Politics with Immigrants’ Lives in Wed. Hearing

DT: March 26, 2012

Instead of working to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans in Congress are pushing for the expulsion of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.  Their plan, called “attrition through enforcement,” is to ramp up deportations and make life in the U.S. so degrading and unbearable that the remaining immigrant families simply pick up and leave on their own.  To set the climate for this ugly agenda, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and the Immigration Subcommittee have held numerous hearings portraying immigrants as “criminals” who “steal jobs from Americans” and should be forced to leave the country.   

This Wednesday, the House Immigration Subcommittee will renew its attack on immigrants with a hearing to “examine” the Obama Administration’s updated Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), released last year.  But from the early comments of Rep. Lamar Smith and his allies, to the very title of the hearing—“Holiday on ICE”—it’s clear that they have already made up their minds.  It’s not enough to push to deport as many immigrants as possible – they want to make the process even more painful and inhumane.

The 2011 PBNDS are updated policies about how the federal government intends to treat the hundreds of thousands of immigrants it detains every year—including undocumented immigrants, families, lawful permanent residents, survivors of torture, asylum seekers, children, and pregnant women.  They were created after the news media and numerous organizations exposed the inhumane and even deadly treatment of immigrants held in U.S. civil detention facilities over the past decade or more.  Lack of access to medical screenings and treatment led to unnecessary suffering and preventable deaths.  The government failed to protect women from sexual abuse in detention, and failed to punish abuse when it happened—leading to nearly 200 complaints of sexual abuse from 2007 to 2011.  People going through the deportation process—one of the most traumatic and difficult experiences imaginable—were denied basic legal and human rights. 

Immigrants in detention are waiting for a civil administrative hearing on whether the government has the authority to deport them. But they are held in jails or under jail-like conditions, and until recently were not even guaranteed the same standards for care as incarcerated convicts.  The Obama Administration’s detention standards are the minimum of what our government should do to protect the lives of people in its care and custody.   

The Performance-Based National Detention Standards say that someone with cancer should not be denied access to early screenings and life-saving treatment.  Victims of sexual assault in detention facilities should feel safe reporting the abuse and should receive the mental and physical treatment they need.  And detained immigrants should be allowed to meet with their lawyers in private, without worrying that ICE or detention personnel are listening in.

However, in a preview of what we’ll see at the Wednesday hearing, Smith called the 2011 PBNDS manual a “hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants” and dispatched culture war allies, like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, to drum up the opposition.  Perkins appeared on Fox News to link the war on immigrants to the war on women.  Talking about the PBNDS rule on abortions, which says the government will assume the costs of terminations in situations of rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger, Perkins said: “You talk about the issue of rape, that’s such a small percentage of pregnancies that are out there. Plus, how do you verify that that, in fact, is the case? That it’s a case of rape? Again, this comes down to government funds being used to advance radical social policy that is masquerading as health care.”

What Perkins calls “radical social policy,” most people would consider just basic humanity.  The inhumanity that House Republicans and their allies are showing toward immigrants is galling, and this hearing is not an isolated incident.  Rep. Steve King famously compared immigrants to livestock and suggested using an electrified fence to keep them out of the United States.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) also made it clear that he sees immigrants as less than human, when discussing the case of an undocumented man who needs a kidney transplant but can’t get one: “If they’re dead, I don’t have an objection to their organs being used.  If they’re alive, they shouldn’t be here no matter what.” 

The bottom line is, Perkins, Smith, King, Rohrabacher and others are playing politics with people’s lives. Abuses perpetuated in detention centers over the last several years have been nothing short of appalling.  Advocating the elimination of basic standards for how we treat immigrants detained by our government exhibits a callous disregard for human life.  Consider the following examples: 

  • For 11 months, Francisco’s penile cancer went undiagnosed and untreated as ICE officials refused to let him get a biopsy, which they called an “elective” procedure.  By the time the cancer was diagnosed in February 2007 and the growth had been removed, the cancer had spread.  It killed Franciso a year later.
  • In addition to suffering from another undiagnosed and untreated case of cancer, Hiu Lui Ng spent the last four months of his life in excruciating pain with a broken spine.  ICE officials refused him any treatment whatsoever.  A video recorded a week before his death in 2008 shows detention officers dragging him down a hallway while he screams in pain.
  • Rev. Joseph Dantica, a Haitian refugee who came to the U.S. to seek asylum from the gangs who had ransacked his home, fell ill in detention in 2004 and was accused of “faking” as he vomited profusely. He died in a hospital prison ward, in leg restraints, after not having seen a doctor for 24 hours. His niece, writer Edwidge Danticat, recounted his painful story in the book “Brother, I’m Dying.”
  • Boubacar Bah suffered a skull fracture while in detention in 2007. He was left in an isolation cell for 13 hours without treatment before an ambulance was called. According to the New York Times, as he lay in a coma after surgery, ICE officials plotted to release him to avoid “increased scrutiny and/or media exposure”; he died before they were able to do so.
  • Additional examples will be discussed in a call with reporters, organized by America’s Voice Education Fund, on March 28th.  Contact press@americasvoiceonline.org for details.  

Women’s organizations, medical experts, and almost anyone who has ever been inside an immigration detention facility are outraged at the fact that self-proclaimed “family values” Republicans are opposing basic humanitarian treatment of immigrants in civil detention.  This position is ugly and un-American.

Further resources on abuses in immigration detention:

America’s Voice Education Fund — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.