By THE EDITORIAL BOARD of the New York Times
Americans who are unfamiliar with the immigration justice system might be surprised to learn how much it skimps on actual justice. The notion of a fair day in court becomes only theoretical when immigrants lack attorneys, as most do, when their deportation cases are not reviewed by judges, as too often happens, and when they are locked up in prisons unable to see their families, even though they have been accused only of civil violations — and many have never been convicted of anything
Then there are the times the system inflicts arbitrary cruelty. This happens when detainees are held in solitary confinement, an extreme form of punishment that risks causing severe mental damage. New federal data show that about 300 immigrants on any given day are held in isolation at the country’s 50 largest detention centers overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, many for 23 hours a day, sometimes in windowless cells barely bigger than bathroom stalls. And nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more.
Why ICE resorts to such extreme punishment is unclear. It could be for rule infractions, fighting or for detainees’ own protection, if they are seen as vulnerable to abuse, perhaps for being gay. In any case, ICE’s detention system — which handles about 34,000 people a day, and 400,000 a year — is not a model of humane incarceration. It’s a ramshackle network of private and public lockups, prone to abuses and lacking legally enforceable standards for how detainees are treated.
For those held for civil violations, solitary confinement is wildly inappropriate. Civil detention is imposed not as punishment, but simply to make sure somebody shows up for a hearing. Many detainees are victims of political oppression or human trafficking, many are only seeking better lives, some are ill. These are people America should be sheltering, not arbitrarily brutalizing.
The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, has promised a review of solitary-confinement policies. If she doesn’t fix this, then Congress should step in, and now is the perfect time. Lawmakers are preparing a sweeping overhaul of immigration so that it meets the country’s economic needs. They should do just as much to bring the system in line with American values.
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