U.S. immigrant detentions rise despite Biden campaign promises

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The United States immigration detention system greeted Alexander Martinez with abuse and harassment after fleeing El Salvador to save himself from government persecution and the infamous MS-13 gang.

Since crossing the border illegally in April, the 28-year-old has bounced between six different establishments in three states. He said he contracted COVID-19, faces racist taunts and abuse from guards and has been harassed by fellow inmates for his homosexuality.

“I find myself emotionally unstable because I have suffered so much in custody,” Martinez said last week at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. “I never imagined or planned to receive this inhuman treatment,” he said.

He is among a growing number of people in immigration detention centers nationwide, many of whom, like Martinez, have passed the initial screening to seek asylum in the United States.

The number of detainees has more than doubled since late February, reaching nearly 27,000 as of July 22, according to the most recent data from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That’s above the roughly 22,000 detained last July under then-President Donald Trump, though far from the record high in August 2019, when the number of detainees surpassed 55,000, data shows. of the ICE.

The increase in detentions is a sore point for President Joe Biden’s pro-immigration allies, who hoped he would reverse his predecessor’s hard-line approach. Biden campaigned to end “prolonged” detention and the use of private prisons for immigrant detention, which house the majority of those held by ICE.

“We’re at this really strange moment with him,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, which advocates for an outright end to immigration detention. “There is still time to turn the tide, but his policies so far have not matched his campaign rhetoric,” Shah said.

In May, the Biden administration terminated contracts with two controversial ICE detention centers – one in Georgia and another in Massachusetts – garnering praise from advocates who hoped it would be the start of a wider pullback. .

But no other facility has lost its ICE contracts, and Biden has offered to fund 32,500 immigrant detention beds in its budget, a slight decrease from the 34,000 funded by Trump.

A White House spokesperson said Biden’s budget reduced the number of ICE detention beds and shifted some of their use toward treating immigrants for parole and other alternatives.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a recent congressional hearing he was “concerned about the excessive use of detention” and pledged to continue examining problematic facilities.

The growing number of asylum seekers detained for prolonged periods is one of the most concerning developments, said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

The number of detainees who successfully passed their initial asylum screening rose from around 1,700 in April to 3,400 at the end of July, representing around 13% of all detainees, according to the most recent data from the ICE.

“By ICE’s own policy, these are people who should no longer be in detention,” said Altman, citing ICE’s process for parole for asylum seekers until a judge decides. their case.

ICE officials declined to comment.

Martinez, the Salvadoran national, authorized his initial examination in May, which determines whether an asylum seeker has a “credible fear” of persecution in their country of origin.

But his lawyers say ICE is keeping him in custody because he mistakenly believes he is a member of the MS-13 gang.

Martinez says he fled El Salvador after he and his family received death threats because he testified against the gang in the murder of a friend of his. He says investigators tried to get him to testify in other gang-related murders, but he was reluctant because he had not witnessed these crimes.

“I was very scared,” Martinez said. “I told investigators I was going to quit the case. I didn’t want to go through the process anymore because I don’t want them to hurt my family, let alone me.

ICE officials in New Orleans declined to comment on Martinez’s case and specific concerns about treatment at Winn Prison, citing federal privacy rules for cases involving victims of violence and others. crimes.

Winn, one of the largest ICE detention centers in the country, has long angered civil rights groups. In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center called on the Biden administration to cancel its contract with the government, citing abuse, medical negligence, racism and other mistreatment at the facility, nestled in a dense forest in the Rural Louisiana and surrounded by barbed wire.

A spokesperson for the agency said that the ICE is generally committed to ensuring that detainees are in a safe, secure and clean environment, receive full medical care and that their concerns and complaints are addressed in writing by the staff.

Opponents of immigration argue that a trend more troubling than increasing detentions is an apparent decline in ICE enforcement in towns and villages.

As of last month, more than 80% of detainees were apprehended by border patrol officers and less than 20% by ICE officers, according to ICE data. Last July, under Trump, 40% of detainees were recovered by the border patrol and 60% by the ICE.

This means that most of those in detention were apprehended as they attempted to enter the country illegally, and not by local immigration authorities, said Andrew Arthur, a researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, who advocates for lower immigration.

“We just don’t enforce the immigration law inside the country,” he said.

Meanwhile, detainees and advocates are calling for the closure of detention centers in favor of monitoring immigrants on parole with GPS devices and other measures.

ICE inmates at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey filed an administrative complaint last month with the Homeland Security Civil Rights Office asking for an investigation into allegations, including poor sanitary conditions and medical negligence during the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, we are detainees, not detainees,” said Jean Claude Wright, 38, from Trinidad and a former US Air Force officer named in the complaint. “But it’s worse than jail.”

ICE inmates at the Plymouth County Corrections House in Massachusetts also sent a letter to their supporters in June, detailing issues such as restrictions on visitation.

Allison Cullen says she has not been able to visit her husband, a Brazilian national, since before the pandemic.

The couple’s youngest child was only a few months old when Flavio Andrade Prado was arrested, and he hasn’t seen his 2-year-old daughter in person for months, she said.

“We are in this endless limbo,” said Cullen, a US citizen from Brockton, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Boston. “There’s no easy way to tell my kids about what’s going on and when dad comes home,” she said.

Back in Louisiana, Martinez says he requested to be placed in solitary confinement, fearing for his safety.

Two inmates who harassed him for his homosexuality were moved, but ICE officials then sent him to a high-security unit where he says many gang-affiliated inmates are housed.

He says he spends most of his days in his cell, with limited access to communications and recreation.

“It’s really tough and miserable, and I’m on my own all the time,” Martinez said. “I am a good person. This treatment is inhumane.

He wants to move to San Jose, California, where a friend has promised to help him find work. He wants to send money to El Salvador – his mother has cancer and his younger sister is in college.

“I just want what everyone else wants,” Martinez said, “to go out, be free and help support my family.”


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