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California Officials Expose ‘Soul-Crushing’ Stories of Immigrant Detention

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Thousands of detainees in California’s 10 immigration facilities are facing harsh conditions that include 22-hour stints of cell confinement, obstacles to legal representation, severe disciplinary practices, and lack of access to family members, a study released by the California’s Department of Justice  has revealed.

The report was produced under a 2017 state bill that mandates a 10-year review of county, local and private Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities housing individuals subject to civil immigration proceedings.

During the pilot yearlong investigation, California justice officials visited centers in efforts to capture a comprehensive picture of life during the average 51-day detainment.

They documented everything ICE officials allowed them access to, including food quality, medical care and confidentiality, sexual abuse, and prevention protocol and maintenance concerns.

In the last three years, detention facilities in California, including those operated by local governments, have held more than 74,000 immigration detainees. They included individuals as young as 13 and as old as 95, from over 150 countries.

Detainees were held for more than 50 days on average, with the longest stay at a single facility exceeding four years.

At a press conference this week,  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the 134-page analysis “shines light” on the harsh conditions, which will hopefully prod the federal government to improve treatment in the facilities, the Sacramento Bee reported.

In some cases, immigrants endured severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, and the report found that language barriers between officials and detainees led to “discipline or treatment by staff that appears arbitrary and abusive, and prevents facilities from meeting detainees’ legitimate needs.”

At the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, Deputy Attorney General Marisol León, who assisted with the oversight, said she heard “soul-crushing” stories of children who fled violence in their home country and traveled across several borders to arrive in the U.S., only to be “re-traumatized in many ways in the center.”

León also said women were not getting proper medication, and recounted speaking with a father whose baby was “torn from his arms.” Another team member spoke of women defecating in bio-hazard bags because they were locked in their cells for much of the day without reprieve.

In a statement to The Sacramento Bee, ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley said that the agency is committed to providing for the welfare of detainees.

“Accordingly, all facilities that house ICE detainees must meet rigorous performance standards, which specify detailed requirements for virtually every facet of the detention environment,” Haley said.

“The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE’s care are of paramount concern and all ICE detention facilities are subject to stringent, regular inspections.”

Becerra said that since the review began in 2017, several facilities have already implemented changes suggested in the report.

He also noted that the years’-long process to ensure ICE facilities are not operating in a “cloak of darkness” has only just begun, and added that the DOJ will hold immigration centers legally accountable should they choose not to consider the report’s recommendation.

The DOJ found a number of common challenges among detainees, including the following:

  • Prolonged periods of confinement without breaks, with some detainees confined in cells for up to 22 hours a day;
  • Significant language barriers, compromising medical and legal confidentiality;
  • Difficulties with access to medical and mental health care, increasing the risk to detainees of a major medical or mental health incident;
  • Obstacles to external communication, limiting detainees’ abilities to contact family or other support systems; and
  • Barriers to access to legal representation, leaving many detainees to navigate the complexities of immigration law themselves.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff reporter Megan Hadley.

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