A Small Fight Over Immigration Detention Carries a Wider Message

A group works to keep immigrants out of an Illinois jail.

ByABC News
August 5, 2013, 12:02 PM

Aug. 5, 2013— -- A shortage of medical staff led federal immigration officials to remove immigrant detainees from an Illinois jail in December 2012. The detainees were relocated to places like Kentucky and Wisconsin, or deported.

The Jefferson County Justice Center is still open, housing people charged with criminal, non-immigration offenses. But since the immigrant detainees were transferred, advocates have been fighting to make sure that people being held for immigration crimes are kept out.

Poor medical treatment, moldy bathrooms and lack of outdoor recreation are among the reasons why the facility should not be used to house immigrants awaiting deportation, according to lawyers from the National Immigrant Justice Center, which has been representing immigrants once held in the jail. The group sent a letter last week to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding that detainees not be placed there again unless conditions are improved.

An ICE spokesperson said in a statement that they are working closely with officials overseeing the jail, but that immigrant detainees are not currently being placed there. "ICE has no immediate plans to move detainees to the Jefferson County Correctional Facility before a full inspection of the facility is conducted," Leticia Zamarripa wrote in an email.

The jail is emblematic of a greater problem in the immigration detention system, according to Tara Tidwell Cullen, the associate director of communications for the organization.

"While the conditions there were pretty egregious...some of the issues that our clients have encountered there are pretty typical," she said.

For example, in the Midwest, it's common for immigrants awaiting deportation to be placed in jails with people awaiting trial and convicted criminals serving short sentences.

"The majority of people who ICE holds as detainees now are not dangerous criminals," Cullen said. "There's no reason to lock them up in any type of jail."

Detention is also expensive. The daily cost of holding a detainee is $119 per day, compared with anywhere from $0.17 to $18 if the person is released and supervised with alternative methods, like an ankle bracelet, an ICE official told Reuters earlier this year.

In 2009, the agency did pledge to cut down on the number of immigrant detainees kept in penal facilities. It's made good on that promise to some degree, reducing the number of detention facilities from 340 to 250, but plenty of immigrants are still housed with the general population.

A report released by the Detention Watch Network in November 2012 ranked the 10 worst detention facilities in the country, citing recurring themes of subpar medical care and lack of sunlight, among other complaints. Those facilities remain open, according to organizers.

Jefferson County wasn't on that list, but advocates see some of the same problems.

"People aren't really being treated like people, they're not being treated with real dignity," said Cullen. "The entire system is really inhumane, and what we saw happening at Jefferson County is really just an example of that."

Update, 5:05 p.m. I updated this article after receiving a response from ICE.Update, 7:30 p.m. An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of the ICE spokesperson. It's Zamarripa, not Lamarripa.