A project of the Center for Community Change


DHS Plans to Reform Immigrant Detention Policy


This morning the New York Times broke the story of the Department of Homeland’s Security new effort to reform the immigrant detention system.

The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a “truly civil detention system.”

While I’m not sure what a “truly civil” way of detaining non-criminal immigration violators would look like, I do know that this is at least a step in the right direction for the administration, which has been frustratingly unwilling to tackle this issue until now.

The best news of today’s announcement is that the administration will stop sending families to the T. Don Hutto “family” detention center near Austin, Texas.

The T. Don Hutto Detention Center where families are being detained in inhumane conditions - even children, pregrant women and

Hutto was one of the more outrageous moves by the Bush administration to “get tough” on immigration – by jailing whole families, including small children, in inhumane conditions.

Before [an] A.C.L.U. lawsuit was settled in 2007, some children under 10 stayed as long as a year, mainly confined to family cells with open toilets, with only one hour of schooling a day. Children told of being threatened by guards with separation from their parents, many of them asylum-seekers from around the world. Only through judicial enforcement of the settlement…have children been granted such liberties as wearing pajamas at night and taking crayons into family cells.

This is, perhaps, the most symbolic departure from Bush-era policies in this reform effort. However, in order to truly reform this system, I think that there must be a drastic change made to the underlying network of corporations profiting off of the detention of immigrants. Take the recent quote from Daniel Cooney, chairman of the board of the Donald Wyatt Center, an immigrant detention center in Rhode Island:

“Frankly, I’m looking at it like I’m running a Motel 6. I don’t care if it’s Guantanamo Bay. We want to fill the beds.” He was eventually fired in the fallout from this remark, but his candor is revealing. Immigrant prisoners are valuable commodities to local jails.

So, I applaud the administration for (finally) tackling this urgent issue, but I am only cautiously optimistic. As the New York Times notes:

Details are sketchy, and even the first steps will take months or years to complete.

But it is a step in the right direction – a step that should be incorporated into a much broader comprehensive immigration reform plan.

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Death in Detention: Details of a Life Lost


Yesterday’s New York Times covers the story of an immigrant detained in 2005 who then died three weeks later, captive of a broken system. Until February of this year, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of Tanveer Ahmad.

Tanveer Ahmad, it turns out, was a longtime New York City cabdriver who had paid thousands of dollars in taxes and immigration application fees. Whether out of love, loneliness or the quest for a green card, he had twice married American women after entering the country on a visitor’s visa in 1993. His only trouble with the law was a $200 fine for disorderly conduct in 1997: While working at a Houston gas station, he had displayed the business’s unlicensed gun to stop a robbery.

After September 11th, this small misdemeanor was enough to get Ahmad arrested, under new and stricter laws.

It would come back to haunt him. For if Mr. Ahmad’s overlooked death showed how immigrants could vanish in detention, his overlooked American life shows how 9/11 changed the stakes for those caught in the nation’s tangle of immigration laws.

In the end, his body went back in a box to his native village, to be buried by his Pakistani widow and their two children, conceived on his only two trips home in a dozen years. He had always hoped to bring them all to the United States, his widow, Rafia Perveen, said in a tearful telephone interview through a translator.

“He said America is very good,” she recalled. “When it comes to the treatment of Muslims in the U.S., he had faith in the rule of law. He said, ‘In America, they don’t bother anyone just for no reason.’ ”

When immigration agents burst into Mr. Ahmad’s two-room Flatbush apartment on Aug. 2, 2005, they were looking for someone else, his friends say — a roommate suspected of violating his student visa by working. But they ordered Mr. Ahmad to report to immigration headquarters in Manhattan on Aug. 11.

Ahmad is the poster child of the almost impossibly complicated legal paths immigrants must walk in order to gain documents to back up their presence in this country.

Though he had overstayed his first visa, he had repeatedly been authorized to work while his applications for “adjustment of status” were pending. Twice before 9/11 he had been allowed back into the country after visits to Pakistan.

While the DHS cover-up of Ahmad’s death (and even his existence) are shocking, it is evident that this situation is not isolated. The backlogs and complications of the immigration bureaucracy in this country are driving away some of the best and the brightest in the country, while others die, locked up for a questionable reason and unacknowledged except for statistics used to bolster the very forces that killed them.

Yet if his death was not counted, his arrest was — it had been added to the agency’s anti-terrorism statistics, according to government documents showing he was termed a “collateral” apprehension in Operation Secure Commute, raids seeking visa violators after the London transit bombings.

I find this to be the worst kind of hypocrisy.

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ACTION: View Screening of “The Least of These”, Documentary on Immigrant Detention

least-of-these“The Least of These”

A Documentary on Family Detention, American Values, and the Power of Community Activism

Monday April 20 6:30 PM

Landmark’s E Street Cinema

555 11th Street NW (entrance on E Street between 10th and 11th Street)

There will be a Q&A with the directors and Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission after the screening.

The Least of These takes a penetrating look at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former medium-security prison that re-opened in 2006 as a prototype family detention center. The facility houses immigrant children and their parents from all over the world who are awaiting asylum hearings or deportation proceedings.

As information about troubling conditions at the facility began to leak out, three activist attorneys (Vanita Gupta of the ACLU, Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission, and Barbara Hines of the University of Texas School of Law) sought to investigate and address the issues. In telling the story of their quest, the film explores the role and limits of legal and community activism in bringing about change.

The film leads viewers to consider how core American rights and values – presumption of innocence, the protection of children, upholding the family structure as the basic unit of civil society, and America as a refuge of last resort – should apply to immigrants, particularly children.

For more information about the film: www.theleastofthese-film.com

For more information about the festival: www.filmfestdc.org

For ticket information: www.filmfestdc.org/tickets.cfm

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