Process by Torment

AVID and Innovation Law Lab released a report detailing the immigration experiences of individuals who were detained at the Otero County Processing Center. The report covers pre-ICE Detention (Customs and Border Protection custody and Migrant Protection Protocols), experiences in ICE Detention, and Legal Issues that arose while detained.

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Executive Summary (Descargar el Resumen Ejecutivo)

This report is about concerns and complaints expressed by people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC) located in Chaparral, New Mexico, an immigration detention facility managed by private prison contractor Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

Between August 2019 and June 2020, attorneys and volunteers with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC) spoke to 232 individuals detained at OCPC. The primary purpose of the conversations was legal advocacy for unrepresented individuals. Out of the conversations with 232 persons, 153 raised concerns or troubling information about some aspect of their experience with the immigration process. When complaints were raised, EPIC staff and volunteers recorded this information. This report is an analysis of those records.

Concerns by category.

The 153 individuals who raised concerns come from 16 countries and speak eight different languages. This sample of individuals registered 259 concerns, complaints, or troubling issues. These are organized into 14 categories. The categories are merged into three procedural groups that pertain to different aspects of the immigration process these individuals experienced: conditions in pre-ICE Detention (19%), conditions in ICE Detention (57%), and Legal issues while in ICE Detention (24%).

Out of the total number of complaints, the most common categories of concern were Medical issues while in ICE Detention (37%), Due Process matters experienced while detained (17%), and CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) detention Conditions (14%) experienced prior to ICE Detention (“Pre-ICE Detention”). Notably, these top three areas of complaint pertain to the three major components of immigrant incarceration discussed in this report: detaining migrants upon arrival, imprisoning migrants at greater length, and deciding on their potential release or asylum cases.

Complaint rates by advocates or government agencies.

In the current sample, 66% of the individuals spoken to raised a concern of some kind. This is substantially higher than the complaint rate obtained by ICE inspectors (4-8%) at the same facility. This discrepancy corroborates earlier criticism of the ICE inspections regime. We argue that ICE inspections constitute performative compliance that gives the illusion that entities are conforming to the “agreed” rules of contract delivery. This reform-oriented approach to systemic problems ends up justifying and sustaining the troubling situations that evoke the need for reforms in the first place.

Duration of incarceration in hielera.

Among the concerns raised in the Pre-ICE Detention group, perhaps the most significant result is the increasingly long periods of time that individuals are held in “temporary” CBP custody, inside the so-called hieleras or “ice boxes”. The current sample shows that in 2019 people were being held in hieleras on average (M=14, SD=15) seven times as long as they were between 2011-2015. The conditions in hielera holding cells are consistent with definitions of torture and constitute a form of “clean torture” that causes physical harm but may produce no immediately-visible physical marks.

Breakdown of medical concerns by type.

Among the concerns raised in the ICE Detention group, Medical issues dominate and are varied in nature. Both mental and physical ailments go untreated. Moreover, mental ailments can be so acute that individuals turn to self harm and suicide attempts. The mental harms resulting from detention are consistent with categories of mental suffering resulting from torture. Medical neglect is responsible for two recent deaths at OCPC, and the present sample demonstrates that the problems with medical care are ongoing. ICE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, discussed in multiple sections below, further underscores the profound harm the agency causes to the health of those detained.

Among the ICE Detention Legal issues, Due Process violations top the list. Advocates and individuals in immigration custody and proceedings widely observe Due Process violations and concerns across various agencies including ICE, CBP, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR).

Legal issues in ICE detention.

Focusing largely on the issues raised by individuals with whom EPIC spoke, we affirm and underscore the conclusion that ICE detention is inherently abusive, the ICE inspections regime occludes and facilitates systematic abuse, and that detention presents severe legal obstacles that are designed to make it as hard as possible for individuals to succeed in their immigration cases. Certain facets of ICE detention, prolonged use of solitary confinement, and ongoing inhuman or degrading treatment by facility staff are consistent with definitions of torture.

Drawing on larger conversations, we further conclude that ICE detention is impervious to reform. In fact, prior reform attempts made the situation worse. Immigration detention does not make communities safe, it is costly, and it is unnecessary for its stated purpose of ensuring that individuals attend their immigration proceedings. Importantly, the many instances of violence and abuse of detained individuals reported here represent a pattern of behavior — not an aberration — that aligns with what is documented by detained and formerly detained individuals, and by our colleagues who support them across the United States and beyond. Simply put, the violence and abuse cannot be explained away by “a few bad apples;” it is systemic. On these grounds, we argue that ICE detention, the use of CBP temporary holding facilities, and the practice of returning immigrants to Mexico to await a hearing should be abolished.

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