Locked in Squalor

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

NO MATTER your position in the debate over immigration policy, you no doubt agree that the United States ought to treat those accused of violating immigration law humanely. As it happens, so does U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which for years has had guidelines on the books governing the treatment of detainees (about 27,500 of whom are locked in its facilities every night). And, according to the agency's spokesman, ICE is very good at meeting its standards.

But a report released by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general last week suggests the opposite. The study examined five facilities and found violations of basic ICE guidelines in every one. Among the more upsetting: roach and rat infestations; limited access to clean underwear; dirty food trays and undercooked poultry; faulty ventilation; and, perhaps most disturbing, constricted access to counsel. Unlike other types of prisoners in the United States, noncitizens held for violations of immigration law have no right to state-provided legal representation, but ICE's guidelines specify that they must have access to law libraries and to working telephones with up-to-date phone numbers connecting to free legal aid services. The inspector general found that phones often did not work and that the law libraries were often obsolete. In one facility, not one of the 12 numbers for legal services worked.

In its defense, ICE says that the report's findings are not statistically significant because the inspector general examined only a small number of facilities and that the report does not reflect the state of other detention centers. A spokesman points to the results of inspections ICE regularly conducts across the whole system as evidence that the agency does not have a problem complying with its own rules. Yet the very inspections ICE touts found each of the five facilities the report examined to be acceptable, failing to catch many of the problems the inspector general identified. This suggests that internal information describing better conditions in other detention centers is probably also inaccurate.

In a written response to the report, ICE agreed that it needs to review its inspection regimen. That's a start. The next step should be promulgating the guidelines it professes to have no problem meeting as agency regulations, which would give them the force of law and provide a greater incentive to comply. If ICE's claims are true, it should have no argument with making regulations of its own guidelines. If the inspector general's portrait is indicative, the nation is failing a basic standard of human decency.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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