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SPLC report: Detention system forces people to give up claims to stay in U.S.

Before fleeing Somalia, Yuusuf was a teacher.

He was dedicated to education and its ability to empower the next generation of Somalis. But Yuusuf’s passion for teaching also put him in the crosshairs of al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked extremist group that has terrorized his country.

The group opposes Western-style education and is willing to kill teachers and students alike to stop its spread in the region. In 2015, extremists attacked Yuusuf’s school, slaughtering his fellow teachers.

It was not the first time Yuusuf had found himself mourning in the wake of al-Shabab’s deadly violence. His relatives had dared to stand up to the group years earlier – defiance that resulted in the family seeking shelter at a safe house on a police compound. The safe house was bombed by the group, killing his sister and daughter. And in 2014, the group abducted and savagely tortured Yuusuf.

It was clear he could no longer stay in Somalia.

In January 2016, Yuusuf fled to the United States for asylum, arriving in a Latin American country before journeying to the U.S. border. It was a risky journey, but one he was willing to undertake because he saw the U.S. as a beacon of democracy and human rights.

He saw hope.

But after he entered the country, he was sent to an immigrant detention center – essentially a prison – where he endured more than two years in inhumane conditions and a long, grueling legal process that led him to stop fighting his unlawful detention. Because he gave up on his habeas petition in federal court, the government was allowed to deport Yuusuf.

Yuusuf’s story is one of several firsthand accounts from detained immigrants in No End in Sight, an SPLC report, released today, that reveals harrowing conditions of confinement and unfair disparities in courts that cause many immigrants to give up their fight to stay in the United States – even when they have a strong case to remain.

“This is more than jail,” said Yuusuf, whose name, like other immigrants featured in the report, has been changed to protect his identity. “In jail, you get your sentence and you know when you are free, but detention is endless.”

As the report demonstrates, detained people face immigration courts – many without counsel – where relief is not only a long shot but may be a virtual impossibility as some judges deny asylum at rates nearing 100 percent. And, in the meantime, they may be held on civil immigration charges for months, even years, before their cases are resolved. 

“Abuse is endemic to this country’s broken immigration detention and court systems, which work more like a deportation machine and less like the impartial arbiters of due process the U.S. Constitution requires,” said Laura Rivera, an attorney with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

That’s why 93.8 percent of the people held at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, were deported or left the United States voluntarily, according to FY 2018 data the SPLC reviewed earlier in the year. At LaSalle Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, the rate was 93.5 percent for the same period.

These two states where the SPLC represents immigrants in detention have some of the highest detained populations and the lowest asylum-grant rates in the nation. Government studies have shown disparities of up to 38 percentage points in asylum-grant rates in similar cases, demonstrating that the immigration system has less to do with merits than the luck of the draw.

Detained men and women frequently navigate a confusing legal labyrinth without counsel. They have the right to a lawyer, but only at their own expense. And legal counsel is a luxury that few detained immigrants can afford – or even find – while locked away in remote facilities.

Outlook becoming bleaker

Though President Trump has greatly exacerbated obstacles people face while detained, the issues encountered by immigrants and the advocates who try to assist them are not solely the result of one president who has relentlessly demonized immigrants. They are the result of a detention and deportation machine built by decades of increasingly harsh immigration policy.

Immigrant detention, a tool to ensure court appearances by people denied bond or who cannot post bond, was never intended as punishment. Over time, however, the effect has been the same.

The outlook is only becoming bleaker as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump carry out their anti-immigrant agenda. The first seven months of 2017 saw the average daily population in ICE custody jump 14.4 percent over 2016 – from 34,376 people to 39,322, despite a decline in unlawful border crossings during the same period.

As a result, there will likely be more stories by immigrants such as Guillermo, who fled Central America after he was beaten for resisting a gang’s extortion attempt. He gave up on his asylum case after nine months in a U.S. immigration prison, where he endured hunger and insults from staff.

“The treatment was the hardest part of being detained,” he said. “The guards looked for ways to make us feel bad, on purpose. They humiliate us. They call us ‘dogs’ and throw our things on the ground. They say things like, ‘you have no rights’ and ‘time to eat, dogs!”

There’s also Sylvia, who fled Central America with her spouse to escape her ex-husband, a gang member determined to kill the couple. Though they were both fleeing the same deadly situation, Sylvia was released from detention while her husband remained behind bars until giving up after more than a year in detention. They’re now hiding in Central America and fear for their lives.

Reforming the system

These stories and others highlight a system that must be transformed.

The report’s recommendations call for an end to immigrant detention and lay out specific policy changes. The report also highlights structural shortfalls within the current system – including a lack of reporting and transparency of immigrant deaths while in custody, disparities in bond grant rates, and case-closing quotas.

The report includes recommendations for congressional action to reform this broken system and ensure that immigrant detention processes are fair, efficient and humane, including passing the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which phases out the profit motive that has led private prison companies to operate most immigrant prisons. The legislation also requires the Department of Homeland Security to establish binding standards for treatment of detained immigrants.   

More than 800 days behind bars

As for Yuusuf, more than 800 days in detention was too much for him. Despite learning immigration law and following the proper protocol, he was denied release twice, once for not having the original copy of his identification, which had been confiscated during his journey to the United States. 

Yuusuf also endured a botched deportation attempt where he was shackled and abused on a flight. His mother died while he was in detention, and he feared his father would die before he could see him again. It was all too much for him to bear. Hoping to reunite with his family, he gave up on his habeas case in federal court that sought his release from immigration detention. Yuusuf is appealing his asylum case, but the odds of winning are not on his side.

“I believed that the U.S. had rights,” Yuusuf said. “But if the leader of the world acts like this, I do not believe there are human rights anywhere.”