by Lory Rosenberg, AILA Board of Governors member

The emerging evidence of DHS’s disregard and cover-up of immigrant deaths in detention is unconscionable and belongs on page one of everyone’s human rights agenda. Yes, these deaths occurred 2+ years ago, but there has been no meaningful action taken to investigate, prosecute and remove the DHS employees and contract workers responsible for the deaths or who persist in violating the civil and human rights of detainees. As reported by Nina Bernstein in the New York Times (January 10, 2010), documents obtained by the ACLU establish that “officials — some still in key positions — used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse.”

The Obama administration’s preference for looking forward not back is simply unacceptable in these circumstances. Despite DHS’s current claim that it is dedicated to overhaul and provide greater transparency in its detention system, well-documented reports from the agency’s own Inspector General, Human Rights Watch, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University, and the Constitution Project reveal DHS’s persistent impositionof excessively lengthy detentions, and an apparently endless increase of lawful residents,asylum seekers,
and others with strong ties to the U.S. being detained without regard to or in spite of individual factors. Worse, these reports show that there has been no let up in the practice of “haphazard transfers,” causing some detainees to be moved without notice, with a resulting misplacement of records, loss of access to legal counsel, and, according to the New York Times, a nightmare of “‘errors, delays and confusion for detainees, their families, legal representatives’and the courts.” Such a prevalent level of agency disregard and disorganization inevitably will perpetuate the needless suffering of detainees seeking help from a deficient detainee health care system that places costs above care and covers up its inexcusable mistakes.

Promises of “overhaul” ring empty when the lawless and unaccountable foxes still are standing guard over the same chaotic, mismanaged, and inhumane henhouse. Incredibly, the Obama administration has rehired, “Nina Dozoretz, a longtime manager in the agency’s Division of Immigration Health Services who had won an award for cutting detainee health care costs,” apparently without investigation, and certainly overlooking her claim to have no memory of her involvement in a 2007 conference call to discuss the disposal of Mr. Bah, one of the deceased detainees. No self-imposed DHS “overhaul” of detention purporting to provide detainees with “improved health care” can satisfy the need for redress and responsibility, followed by a robust
regime of transparency and vigilant oversight that is essential to rehabilitate DHS’s lawless image and actual practices in this area. More important, a far greater level of institutionalized accountability and oversight of DHS is critical to protect the lives of detainees and ensure that they are treated with dignity according to law.