Jailed Immigrants May See Better Days

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Changing the rules on imprisoned asylum seekers: INS commissioner Doris Meissner

It's a situation that has been making activists mad for years: The paradox of people, persecuted in their own countries, who come to the United States to find a new life — only to find themselves imprisoned in conditions similar to the ones they tried to escape. Now that is about to change. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has issued new, comprehensive guidelines for the treatment of more than 20,000 detainees currently awaiting immigration hearings across the country.

With exhaustive criteria for everything from sleeping conditions to religious freedom, the new guidelines are designed to answer years of complaints from human rights lawyers charging the agency has shirked its duty, as departing INS commissioner Doris Meissner says, "to provide safe, secure and humane conditions of detention for all aliens in U.S. custody."

Detractors claim agency turns a blind eye to abuse

Many charge that the problems, which range from inadequate food to lice-ridden bedsheets to virtual lockdown conditions, stem from the fact that the INS has not paid close enough attention to the surroundings in American detention centers. "A big part of the problem has to do with the INS's practice of contracting out to private firms who are in charge of the actual detention," says University of Delaware political science professor Mark Miller, who is an expert on immigration politics. "Some of these firms should not have been awarded contracts, and it took the INS a long time to address the problem."

Most detention facilities currently under contract with the INS use guidelines established by organizations like the American Correctional Association, which oversee standards in prisons. In addition to the private prisons, the INS also subcontracts to local counties and municipalities, many of which, especially in some southern states, maintain low standards. Part of the problem with relying on ACA requirements, critics argue, is that while such criteria might create a situation many would find suitable for, say, convicted murderers in a high-security facility, it is much harder to justify similar conditions for aliens awaiting an immigration hearing.

And as the number of illegal immigrants has soared, so has the number of complaints. According to the New York Times, scores of suits have been filed against the contracted prisons by immigrants charging physical abuse, malnutrition and desperately unsanitary conditions — and hundreds of cases of abuse are on file with human rights attorneys. In perhaps the best known documentation of such treatment, Fauziya Kassindja's 1998 autobiography "Do They Hear You When You Cry" details her flight from threatened genital mutilation in Togo to the United States, where she was imprisoned for months, waiting for legal help and suffering extraordinary physical and emotional distress.

INS officials accustomed to censure

Perhaps the most beleaguered government agency, the INS has weathered considerable criticism in the past, most often for its lumbering bureaucracy, but also for its failure to adequately address concerns for the health and safety of aliens in their custody. Some have even raised the possibility that the agency is intentionally broadcasting the refugees' appalling plight in hopes of deterring future potential immigrants from coming to the States at all.

But while many are frustrated by the agency's myriad shortcomings, some, including Mark Miller, feel it would be a mistake to underestimate the interest within the agency in changing conditions for detainees. "I'd be inclined to take them very seriously" on this issue, Miller says. And while Meissner shoulders a great deal of the blame for recent INS failings, even some of the agency's fiercest critics credit her with focusing attention on the agency's faults and problems — rather than glossing over them, which is what her predecessors tended to do. When she steps down in January, Meissner, who submitted her pro forma resignation last November, will leave what Miller calls "the federal government's toughest job," and it will be up to George W. Bush to fill this minefield of a post.