A series of reports released on Thursday call for the closure of 10 jails and prisons holding immigrants across the country, charging substandard medical care, lack of due process and geographic remoteness of facilities, which make it hard for detainees to reach family and lawyers.
The "Expose and Close" campaign, organized by the non-profit Detention Watch Network, alleges that none of the 250 immigration detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reliably protect detainee rights.
In particular, the group focused on 10 facilities and wrote a report for each on why they should be closed. Among them was Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, where a detainee died in 2009 of an allegedly treatable heart infection. The case later resulted in a settlement with the detainee's family.
"It's very important to shine light on the terrible state of our immigration detention system in this country," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who lent his support to the campaign on Thursday via teleconference. He called current conditions a "deprivation of dignity."
In 2009, ICE announced an overhaul of the immigration detention system over a period of three to five years, which would include "improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence, and ICE oversight." The reforms also promised to move away from housing prisoners in penal facilities, instead placing detainees in buildings better suited for those facing immigration charges.
Since that pledge, the number of detention facilities has been reduced significantly, from 340 to 250. The majority of those reductions came from eliminating facilities that occupied space in jails and prisons. A new 608-bed detention center in Karnes County, Texas, looks less like a typical jail, with a bunk beds, Internet access and a soccer pitch.
In response to the recent charges, Gillian Christensen, a spokesperson for ICE, said that the agency is still in the process of reviewing the reports and has offered to meet with the group to discuss concerns.
"However, it is disappointing that the reports appear to be built primarily on anonymous allegations that cannot be investigated or substantiated, and many second hand sources and anecdotes that pre-date the agency's initiation of detention reform," she wrote in an email. "ICE stands behind the significant work we've done reforming the detention system by increasing federal oversight, improving conditions of confinement and prioritizing the health and safety of the individuals in our custody."
However, Detention Watch Network says reform efforts so far haven't been substantial enough. Congressman Polis put the onus back on ICE:
"I think that one of barriers to reform is the culture of detention and the culture of the agency," he said. "What that means in practice is that well-intentioned directives are often ignored in the field."
The reports cite specifics problems in each jail or prison, but also challenge whether people facing immigration charges -- which are administrative in nature, not criminal -- should be held in detention facilities at all.
The case of Pedro Guzman, a former detainee, seems to exemplify that. His mother brought him from Guatemala to the United States on a visa for people seeking asylum when he was 8 years old, he told ABC/Univision.
When a technical problem emerged with his immigration status in September 2009, he was taken into custody by ICE. He spent 19 months in Stewart Detention Center fighting his case, away from his U.S.-citizen wife and three-year-old son.
Two misdemeanors for marijuana possession put a drag on his case, he said, and an immigration judge denied bail. "He said I was a high risk to society," Guzman said.
In May 2011, he was granted cancellation of removal after proving that his deportation would have created extreme hardship for his family. When he left detention, his son was five.
"Even as a detainee, you should still be treated with justice," he said. "The hardcore criminals, they're getting better privileges than us detainees...They're treating us like animals in cages."
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pedro Guzman had been granted asylum in May 2011. He was granted cancellation of removal based on the extreme hardship his deportation would have caused for his family.