North Carolina Educators Fight Deportations of Central American Students

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 23, 2015.
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Wildin David Guillen Acosta, a Durham, North Carolina, high school senior, was set to graduate from Riverside High School in June. Instead, he is being held at a federal detention center in Georgia. In late January, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement agents (ICE) apprehended the 19-year-old student as he was on his way to school. While languishing in the detention center, Acosta asked his teachers to send along his homework, so that if he gets released, he would still be on track for commencement. In late February, his teachers mailed him his assignments, but detention center officials refused to accept the package.

In January, the Obama administration authorized a series of raids to arrest, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala over the past two years. About 15,500 Central American mothers and children have received deportation orders since July 2014, and ICE is now ramping up its enforcement of those orders. More than 330 young people have been arrested nationwide so far. Although students do not comprise all the youths being targeted, local educators have been galvanized by the arrests. Teachers say the raids have had a chilling effect on other students, too.

The ICE raids, which involve barging into homes and picking up individuals off the streets, are reminiscent of Bush administration–era immigration enforcement tactics. While immigration officials avoid making arrests in “sensitive locations”such as churches and schools, immigration advocates say this policy hasn’t stopped ICE agents from detaining undocumented students on their way to school.

ICE agents picked up Yefri Sorto, a 19-year-old Charlotte high school student on his way to a bus stop in late January. Sorto came to the United States from El Salvador in 2014 as an unaccompanied minor. He says he fled his country because he feared gang violence and was finally reunited with his parents, who had been living in the U.S. for more than a decade.

“These raids are impacting not just the individuals we know of who have been picked up; there is wide and deep fear across the community,” says Allison Swaim, a Durham high school teacher.“Kids are not coming to school because they’re afraid, kids are dropping out because they don’t want to be picked up, or maybe they still have a legal process pending, or they’re trying to file for asylum—everyone has their own story.”

The majority of Central Americans who crossed the U.S. border were apprehended, or turned themselves in, hoping to apply for some type of asylum. Immigration advocates say these individuals should be treated as refugees, not as criminals, given the extreme violence found in their home countries. A Guardian investigation found that since January 2014, 83 people who were deported to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were murdered, some just a few days after they returned.

Swaim has been working to organize teachers statewide around what she calls a humanitarian crisis across the South. In Atlanta, ICE agents pulled over 19-year-old Kimberly Pineda Chavez, while she was driving to school. Kimberly arrived in Georgia from Honduras in 2014 with her mother and sister after receiving a series of threats from local police.

Swaim hopes that teachers across the region will collect data and anecdotes about how students are being affected by raids in their communities. Durham teachers held a conference call with U.S. Department of Education officials to express their concerns. “We’re asking federal officials, including Education Secretary John King, to get involved because part of their mission is to provide an equal education for all students, and that includes immigrant students,” Swaim says. “These raids are directly in contradiction with the mission of the Department of Education.”

Rebecca Costa, a Charlotte ESL teacher, says that educators in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district are also trying to duplicate the Durham organizing efforts in their community. Two of Costa’s students stopped coming to school after Yefri Sorto was arrested, and have since gone into hiding. “It all felt very isolating, but now we realize this is happening all over North Carolina and we have to reach out and unite,” she says.

Obama immigration officials stress that ICE is not targeting anyone under 18. But many high school upperclassmen who are completing their secondary education are 18 or older. “My two kids that have gone into hiding were 18 and 19, both juniors,” says Costa.

Mayra Arteaga, a 20-year-old living in Charlotte, has been involved in immigration advocacy since she was in middle school. Mayra has been raising awareness about the deportation raids by rallying students, testifying at school board meetings, and helping to organize protests, like a recent Charlotte march.

“I think once teachers started noticing what was going on, the ball really started rolling,” Arteaga says, noting that these raids have mobilized a much more diverse group of people than immigration advocates typically see at their events.

Advocates worry that the undocumented immigrants are not receiving fair legal treatment, and say that deportation orders have frightened many. Tin Than Nguyen, a Charlotte immigration lawyer, has been working to try and help undocumented families in the city understand their legal rights. “The recent rounds of raids have truly sent shockwaves through the community and everyone is shuddering in fear,” he says.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, of the roughly 10,000 deportation orders given to unaccompanied minors since July 2014, roughly 87 percent were issued in absentia; advocates say many immigrants never received sufficient notice of their scheduled court hearings.

Meanwhile, North Carolina activists have appealed to federal lawmakers to help stop the raids. Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who represents Durham, has been pressuring ICE to delay Wildin’s deportation, so that he can apply for asylum.

“Wildin Acosta and other young people like him fled extreme violence and mayhem in Central America in search of refuge and a better life in the United States,” said Butterfield in a statement. “I believe that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) limited resources would be better utilized focusing on dangerous criminals who pose a threat to our communities rather than high school students and teenagers trying to make better lives for themselves.”

“[Wildin] is being labeled as some kind of internal threat to the security of the United States,” Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators told WNCN, a CBS affiliate. “He’s a kid sitting in a detention cell hoping to get his homework, so that he can graduate on time.”

 

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Recalled But Not Repaired: Why we have millions of cars with unfixed safety recalls — and Germany has none.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect.
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On May 30, Angela Davidson, her husband Clarence, and their twelve-year-old daughter Kira drove a 2010 Dodge Ram down Highway 15 in California, when they heard a loud knock, followed by a popping sound. Seconds later, their truck came to a screeching halt. After seeing smoke rolling into the truck, Angela opened the door to jump out, though one of her legs was quickly burned. Clarence barely had time to get Kira out before the entire truck became engulfed in flames. The truck kept rolling backwards, causing a brush fire that burned more than three acres before the firefighters could put it out. Highway 15 was closed for almost four hours.

Eleven days earlier, the Davidsons had purchased the Dodge Ram from a CarMax dealer in Irvine; CarMax is the nation’s largest retailer of used cars and trucks. Angela says her family went to CarMax specifically because they advertise that all their vehicles are thoroughly examined, with expert technicians stamping a “Certified Quality Inspection” on each one.

When the Davidsons signed a contract on May 19 and drove their truck off the lot, they believed they had just purchased a safe vehicle for their family. A few days later, they contacted Dodge customer service with a question, and the representative informed them that, oh, by the way, there appears to be a July 2013 safety recall issued for the pinion in your truck’s rear axle, and it’s very important to get it fixed right away.

“When I found out it was under recall I was furious,” said Angela. “I just felt like, this is so wrong, why would you guys sell us a car with an open recall like that? I thought of course CarMax would apologize and take the truck back.”

But CarMax—both the Irvine dealer and corporate headquarters—refused to take responsibility and told the Davidsons that it was up to them to repair their truck. Although the Davidsons then took the car to a local Dodge dealer, which may hold some responsibility for the ultimate explosion, CarMax apparently sold the Davidsons an unsafe vehicle. “How did they know that we wouldn’t be killed the same day we bought it?” Angela wrote in a draft testimony of the experience. “The answer is, they didn’t know. They just left it up to chance that we would even find out about the safety recall.”

Stories about vehicles like the Davidsons’ take on added significance in light of this year’s General Motors scandal, in which the automaker finally recalled nearly 2.6 million cars for an ignition switch defect known to company officials for more than a decade and linked to at least 54 crashes and 13 deaths. But six months after the recall, Automotive News reported that roughly 1 million car owners had yet to contact a dealership to fix their flawed ignition switches, and GM was struggling to track down contact information for many of those people.

In the United States, about one in every six cars on the road, or 37 million vehicles, has an unfixed safety recall. These are not minor problems; in safety recalls, the manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has determined that a car or piece of motor vehicle equipment poses an unreasonable risk to safety or fails to meet minimum safety standards. When a recall is in effect, manufacturers are legally obligated to do the repairs for free. Consumers, however, are not required to fix their car, regardless of the defect’s severity. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the annual recall compliance rate in the United States averages 65 percent.

The latest GM episode is not the first major auto recall crisis to prompt public concern about unrepaired safety hazards. In August 2000, Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone jointly announced a recall of 6.5 million tires after they linked them to more than 200 deaths and at least 700 injuries. Six years after the recall announcement, however, experts estimated that more than 200,000 faulty tires had yet to be replaced. An investigative reporter in Georgia even found some of the recalled tires still for sale in 2013.

In direct response to the tire recall, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD). TREAD established a new early warning reporting system, which requires manufacturers and their suppliers to regularly submit information about possible safety issues to NHTSA. “The TREAD Act represents an important first step towards strengthening our nation’s motor vehicle laws,” President Bill Clinton declared when he signed the bill in 2000. “And its vigorous and quick implementation will help save lives and prevent injuries.”

But recalls haven’t fallen. In fact, the number hit a new record this past July, with the most vehicles—39.85 million—ever recalled in a single year. “The problem is only growing,” said Chris Basso, a spokesman for Carfax, a web-based service that tracks the history of every vehicle based on its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). “We have a recall [compliance] rate that leaves 35 percent of cars unrepaired and that number is likely to go up.”

“I want every vehicle fixed, and I’ve been clear about that all along,” GM chief executive Mary Barra said on CNBC, adding, however, that “ultimately it’s the consumer who makes that choice.”

But why are the repairs on safety recalls optional? The risk, after all, is not just to the car owners but also to those who ride with them and others on the road. In light of the public safety hazard, some countries have decided that it makes little sense for consumers to choose whether or not to repair defects on recalled cars. Germany, for example, makes those repairs mandatory. The German Federal Motor Transport Authority enforces that rule by refusing to renew the vehicle registrations of owners who fail to fix their cars. In 2010, Germany revoked owners’ registration due to outstanding safety recalls more than one thousand times. Consequently, the German annual recall compliance rate is 100 percent. Moreover, although German manufacturers aren’t legally required to bear the cost of the repair as they are in the United States, they do so nearly 100 percent of the time.

This combination of full compliance by the customer and full cost paid by the manufacturer creates an economic incentive for German car companies to build better cars the first time around. “There is a popular saying in Germany: Quality is if the customer comes back—not the product,” said Stephan Immen, a spokesman for the German agency. “The one responsible for the product knows what it means and acts corresponding to that.”

The United States could follow Germany’s example and make car registration renewal contingent on auto recall completion. Such a policy would be easy to carry out because DMVs can check each car’s VIN at the time of registration. Some states are already doing this successfully for energy emission standards. In California, if a vehicle owner fails to respond to an energy emission recall notice or the car fails to meet the state standard, the owner’s registration renewal will be denied until the repair is complete. Organizations like the Center for Auto Safety favor applying this same concept to auto safety recalls.

While taking time out of one’s busy life to get a car repaired isn’t something people are excited to do, states typically give owners 30 to 60 days to get it done, and in these cases, the owners have to pay for the cost of the emissions repair themselves. In contrast, if a similar system were applied to auto safety recalls, the repairs would be done at the manufacturer’s expense. Of course, giving up one’s car, even for just a few hours, may cause frustration and anxiety—often to the point where not fixing the car feels like the more sensible option. But manufacturers already sometimes provide free rental or loaner vehicles to individuals while their car is being repaired. GM recently offered this option to consumers who need to fix their car’s defective ignition switch.

Some auto safety reformers hope that small policy changes—like using particularly urgent language in the mailed notice letters—will motivate more owners to fix their cars. “Some manufacturers send pablum [recall notices], so people don’t really think they’re that important,” said Joan Claybrook, a veteran auto safety advocate who headed NHTSA from 1977 to 1981. “NHTSA has the authority to review those letters before they go and make sure they say ‘Alert! Alert!’”

Others have tried to raise the recall compliance rate by hiking penalties for irresponsible manufacturers. One bill introduced in Congress would require key management officials to disclose serious dangers with their products or face a fine and up to five years in prison. Another would require manufacturers to submit accident reports to federal regulators, who would need to make those documents immediately available to the public. And a third would eliminate the cap on civil fines—now $35 million—that the Department of Transportation can levy on automakers for failing to report known defects.

The sponsors of these measures hope that a combination of harsher manufacturer penalties and heightened efforts to disseminate information to the public will lead, eventually, to safer roads. But they have shied away from the most direct approach: making registration renewal dependent on getting the safety defects repaired. The battle over two more limited measures—requiring recall repairs in used cars and rental cars—suggests where the political problems lie.

Rental cars present what might seem to be an easy case for auto recall reform. After all, the rental car companies should be concerned about protecting their reputation for quality and the value of their fleets. But until recently, rental car companies could and would lease cars that were subject to safety recalls. In 2004, sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, 24 and 20 respectively, rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from an Enterprise Rent-A-Car dealer. This model had been recalled a month earlier after experts realized that the steering hose could leak and cause a fire. But the women were unaware because rental companies aren’t legally required to disclose safety recall information to customers. Driving down Highway 101 in northern California, the Houck sisters’ rental car caught fire and hit an oncoming semi-tractor trailer; they died instantly. After the accident, Enterprise tried to settle the scandal quietly, with a $3 million offer in exchange for the family’s confidentiality. The Houcks rejected the proposal and have been leading consumer safety efforts since.

Rental companies at first adamantly opposed changing their lenient recall policies, but activists and legislators continued to apply pressure. As a result, the four largest companies—accounting for 93 percent of the rental car market—now pledge not to rent vehicles that are subject to a safety recall.

But consumer groups insist that without a law requiring recall repairs, individuals are forced to just trust rental companies to abide by their public commitments. Thus reformers are fighting for the passage of a Senate bill, the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act, which would bar rental car companies from renting recalled vehicles to consumers. Even the American Car Rental Association, the policy voice representing the rental car industry, now supports the legislation.

But some powerful groups have worked hard to prevent the bill from becoming law. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the auto industry’s trade association, has refused to support the bill on the grounds that “it would give rise to a myriad of anti–consumer impacts” like increased rental costs for consumers. The real reason, though, is a concern that such a law would expose them to lawsuits.

“If Avis or Hertz has to take a car out of service for a week to get it fixed, particularly if it’s subject to a recall and the repair is not available, the rental companies may be looking at a car being out of service for three months,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “The auto companies are fearful that if this bill goes through they will be sued by the rental companies for the loss of use.”

The powerful National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), representing sixteen thousand new car and truck dealerships with about thirty-two thousand domestic and international franchises, also opposes requiring rental companies to get defective cars fixed, arguing that the bill fails to differentiate one recall from another. (NHTSA does not distinguish recalls.) NADA says rental companies should only agree not to lease or sell defective vehicles if manufacturers issue “Do Not Drive” letters for recalls they deem to be the most serious. Rosemary Shahan, executive director of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), says this is a cheap rhetorical trick because it is “extremely rare” for a manufacturer to voluntarily issue “Do Not Drive” letters—getting a company to issue a recall notice is hard enough as it is.

NADA’s political power also helps explain why Congress hasn’t passed a used car safety bill—a version of the Safe Rental Car Act, but for used cars. In California, a bill—S.B. 686—was introduced in 2013 that would have prohibited auto dealers from selling recalled used vehicles to consumers. Statewide polling revealed that 88 percent of Californians backed this policy. Angela Davidson testified about her CarMax experience at an S.B. 686 hearing in June. But the California New Car Dealers Association, CarMax, and others managed to kill the bill. Activists are now considering a 2016 California ballot initiative, but gathering enough signatures to qualify could cost nearly $1.5 million.

NADA insists publicly that increasing financial penalties for manufacturers who delay recall notices, rather than barring dealers from selling unsafe vehicles, would “better result in consumer safety.” But dealers, like manufacturers, are no doubt worried that new legislation would hurt their ability to sell cars, and consequently cut into their profit margin.

The recall problem is compounded by the growing shortage of qualified mechanics and technicians able to diagnose issues and make the necessary repairs. According to the Auto Care Association, demand for auto technicians has outstripped supply since 2010, and the nation is short about ninety thousand mechanics given what is needed. One of the reasons Germany has done so well in retaining its manufacturing base is its investment in vocational educational programs. Germany’s ability to produce high-quality cars—and to fix them when problems arise—is undoubtedly linked to its strong commitment to train people to build, maintain, and repair them.

Withholding car registrations makes the most sense as a way to raise compliance with safety recalls, but other alternatives have also surfaced to fix the unfixed-vehicle problem.

Shahan says, “First, we’ve got to focus on things that don’t penalize the consumer who didn’t make the defective product.” CARS supports legislation requiring DMVs to issue recall warnings when vehicle registration notices get sent in the mail. Car insurance companies could also help by sending reminder notices to customers when they see evidence of an outstanding safety recall. “What we’ve found is that the reason a lot of the unfinished recalls are not done is because the consumer doesn’t know about it,” said Ditlow. Research shows that newer cars are repaired in higher numbers than older cars, so the sooner a recall is announced and the sooner the owner learns about it, the greater chance there is that it will actually be repaired.

This past February, NHTSA announced that it would institute a new mandatory label to help owners clearly identify recall mailings. But relying on the mail is proving increasingly difficult, as owners change addresses or hand off their cars, and the DMV often lacks reliable, updated records.

In light of these challenges, NHTSA and manufacturers are exploring new ways to reach vehicle owners through such means as text messaging, mobile apps, and emails. But some auto safety advocates worry about the growing digital divide. “Not everyone has access [to the Internet],” said Shahan, who also says that government agencies need to do more to reach people who speak languages other than English.

Despite the political hurdles, momentum is building for more substantial auto recall reform. In April, the Obama administration recommended that Congress ban the sale and rental of unfixed recalled vehicles. Then this summer, New York City became the first city to prohibit the sale of recalled used cars. Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, also recently introduced legislation that would give NHTSA new authority to order unsafe vehicles off the road, rather than merely suggesting they get repaired. His bill, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014, would also bar the sale of unrepaired used cars.

In the public policy world, there are a lot of intractable problems for legislators, activists, and reformers to tackle. Unfixed auto safety recalls are not one of them. This is a problem we can solve. It is not a fantasy to imagine a decent system that helps vehicle owners expediently take care of their safety problem with as little inconvenience as possible, so millions of unsafe cars are no longer on the road. It may take several steps; perhaps dealing with rental cars first, then used cars, and then all cars. But eventually, we could see an improvement in public safety and perhaps even higher-quality automotive manufacturing.

Auto safety reform has produced some of the most important public health advances in the last half-century; the advent of seatbelts, airbags, and drunk-driving legislation has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Each time the government took steps to tighten safety regulation, the auto industry argued that the proposed changes were too costly, unfair, or futile. But the changes have been accepted, and hardly anyone wants to go back. The poll showing 88 percent of Californians favoring the Safe Rental Car Act ought to encourage politicians to tap into the public support for reform. As Shahan says, “These days, there isn’t much that polls at 88 percent.”

City Coffers, Not Police Budgets, Hit Hard By the High Cost of Brutality

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 26, 2014.
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A
s the national conversation around racism and police brutality quickly fades—ramped up briefly in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—U.S. taxpayers remain stuck footing the bills for their local law enforcement’s aggressive behavior. This week alone, Baltimore agreed to pay $49,000 to man who sued over a violent arrest in 2010, Philadelphia agreed to pay $490,000 to a man who was abused and broke his neck while riding in a police van in 2011, and St. Paul agreed to pay $95,000 to a man who suffered a skull injury, a fractured eye socket, and a broken nose in 2012.

In 2013, Chicago paid out a stunning $84.6 million in police misconduct settlements, judgments, and legal fees. Bridgeport, Connecticut, paid a man $198,000 this past spring after video footage captured police shooting him twice with a stun gun, then stomping all over him as he lay on the ground. And in California, Oakland recently agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit a man filed after being shot in the head, leaving him with permanent brain damage. You get the picture.

The thing is, these steep payments rarely come from the police department budgets—instead they’re financed through the city’s general coffers or the city’s insurance plan. It’s the taxpayer, not the law enforcement agency, who pays the price.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

Other scholars have proposed this, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the total number of claims filed for offenses like false arrest and police brutality in New York City increased by 43 percent. So Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, suggested the city could take money from its police budget to pay the associated legal costs. “Perhaps if the department held its own purse strings, it would find more to learn from litigation,” Schwartz wrote in the New York Times. This past June, Schwartz published a study that concluded individual cops almost never pay for their misconduct—rather, “governments paid approximately 99.98 percent of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”

But the politics of pushing police departments to change or make concessions can be difficult. A recent Gallup poll found that across the country, 56 percent of adults hold “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in the police as an institution. If a majority of Americans feel positively about law enforcement, gathering the political will needed to compel change becomes tough.

“Most political leaders don’t have the guts for it, or the stomach for it, so we go around and around and cities pay out buckets of money from their own funds or they buy insurance,” said Harris. “As a result, the settlement costs do not act as a deterrence.”

Video footage might help to change this: The vast proliferation of video recording devices—ranging from individual cell phones to police surveillance cameras—have forced many citizens to watch incidents they might have otherwise tried to deny ever happened. Law enforcement and city officials, too, can’t as easily obfuscate brutal incidents from the record.

It’s possible that the combination of accessible video footage and increasingly expensive lawsuits might at last force cities to re-evaluate the cost of police brutality. This month, a disturbing video surfaced of a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching a man in June; a $5 million lawsuit was then filed against the cop and the footage will be used as evidence. After seeing the video, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake criticized the police department and directed the commissioner to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address his agency’s systemic brutality.

The following week, two city council members proposed legislation that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera, in order to reduce instances of improper behavior.

This is all mildly encouraging, but as long as the cost of the jury verdicts, settlements and legal fees fall outside of the police budgets, the economic incentives for departmental reform will stay low. It’s also important to note that filing a civil rights lawsuit is not easy; the overwhelming majority of claims do not result in huge payouts nor is it easy to secure legal representation—even if the plaintiff was clearly wronged, notwithstanding all the new technological means to collect evidence. The cases take a long time and the pay can be precarious. David Packman, a private researcher who established The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project says that both the lack of financial penalties “sufficient to outrage taxpayers” and the fact that “fewer and fewer lawyers take on police misconduct cases” helps explain why localities don’t feel much pressure to introduce meaningful systemic reforms.

Unfortunately, as long as these trends persist, the taxpayer bill is likely to grow.

Measure to Limit Solitary Confinement Advances in Senate Immigration Bill

Originally published in Solitary Watch on May 29, 2013.

The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week includes an amendment that would curtail the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. While the measure’s reach is limited, its passage by the Committee nonetheless represents a significant step for human rights activists working to help shape the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which will be debated by the full Senate in June.

The amendment, Blumenthal 2, was drafted by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). It sets limits on the use of solitary confinement for adults–in most cases, 15 days–and bans it for all children under 18 years old. The measure also explicitly prohibits the use of solitary confinement to “protect” detainees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the amendment does make it more difficult, it falls short of banning solitary confinement for detainees with mental illness. Detention centers that opt to isolate mentally ill individuals are required to have a medical professional visit with the immigrant at least three times each week as well as weekly visits by a mental health clinician for regular evaluations.

Lastly, the amendment has an oversight component so that detention facilities must submit both the reason for and the duration of all solitary confinement sentences to Congress annually for review.

The Senate’s attention to solitary confinement is relatively historic. Last June the first-ever congressional hearing, led by Richard Durbin (D-IL) was held to discuss the legal, economic and psychological costs of solitary confinement. While a host of local groups have cropped up to fight solitary confinement on the state level, Congress has largely avoided the issue.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, sent a letter in support of Blumenthal 2 to Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. The letter said, “The amendment balances the operational needs of facilities that hold immigration detainees with basic respect for the health and human rights of detainees subject to solitary confinement.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also gave vocal support to the passage of the amendment and said, “The adoption of the amendment takes positive steps forward in fixing a serious injustice the extent of which has only recently come to light.”

Due to increased enforcement measures put in place by the Obama administration, the immigration detention population has dramatically increased. There are 85 percent more immigrants detained today than there were in 2005, and these detentions are usually indefinite sentences. Individuals are held, often for months at a time, until either they voluntarily sign deportation documents or until immigration authorities decide whether to deport the immigrants or let them stay.

Observers argue that while placing U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement is problematic, placing alledgedly undocumented immigrants in solitary confinement is even worse because these individuals are not even serving criminal sentences, but are simply waiting for civil deportation hearings. Beyond that, critics argue that solitary confinement hurts detainees’ ability to fight their cases due to highly restricted access to telephones and other means of communication.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that she believes “solitary confinement should be the exception, not the rule.” She asked federal immigration officials to report back with greater detail about the usage and implementation of solitary confinement in federal facilities.

March 2013 article by the New York Times and The Investigative Reporting Workshop found that on any given day, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials hold approximately 300 immigrants in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities across the country. Their research showed that nearly 50 percent of these individuals are kept in solitary confinement for 15 days or more–a point that psychiatric experts say detainees are at risk for severe mental harm. The study found that about 35 detainees are kept for more than 75 days.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration, responded to the report by sending a letter to John Morton, director of ICE urging him to change their use of solitary confinement. “This report suggests an overreliance by the ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration,” Schumer wrote.

In 2012, the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights, surveyed conditions in many detention centers and county jails that work in conjunction with the ICE. This was the first comprehensive study on the effects of solitary confinement on immigration detainees. The research showed that solitary confinement is often arbitrarily and punitively applied, inadequately monitored and damaging to detainees’ health; investigators also found that most immigrants are denied any meaningful avenues of appeal. Additionally, they found that ICE failed to hold detention centers and jails accountable for their use and abuse of solitary confinement.

Blumenthal 2 would be first federal legislation to place limitations on the duration and circumstances under which detained immigrants can be placed in solitary confinement.  It is unclear at this point whether the amendment will pass the full Senate or the House.

The measure would apply only to those held in immigrant detention, and not to all federal prisoners. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is estimated to hold at least 10,000 individuals in isolation in prisons across the country, and is not subject to any laws that that regulate, monitor, and restrict the use and abuse of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

The Forgotten Side of the Immigration Debate

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 8th, 2013.
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Recently, I returned home from a three-week stay in Guanajuato, Mexico. I lived with a gracious Mexican family, took Spanish classes and had the chance to immerse myself in Mexican culture. Mexican society was beautiful and vibrant — full of ideas, art and religion. Needless to say, the crude stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings were hardly relevant or applicable to my experience, or the experience of anyone I met.

As my trip wound down, I said to my host parents, “Por favor, vengan a visitar a mi familia en los Estados Unidos!” I wanted them to come see my house and meet my family in Pennsylvania. They smiled sadly and told me that would not be likely, because of the difficult hurdles and high costs of obtaining tourist visas.

They are right, of course. While it is not impossible, it is much harder for Mexicans than for, say, Canadians and Europeans to travel to the United States — because Mexico is not part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. This program allows individuals to travel without a visa to the United States for stays of 90 days or less.

Indeed, I also did not need to apply for a visa to travel to Mexico for my visit. But for most countries in the world, and for not-unfounded reasons, potential visitors need to go through various steps in an often arduous process. They must do an interview at a consulate office abroad; they need to file paperwork that shows they have significant ties that keep them at home; and they need to show proof that they are not likely to become a burden on the public system if they travel to the U.S. In essence, if you are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, the burden of proof is on you.

“It’s kind of a crap shoot [for Mexicans], it takes a long time, and it’s expensive,” said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Whether or not they are ultimately granted a visa, prospective visitors must still pay the nonrefundable $160 application fee, or about 2,037 pesos. “They are often declared ineligible, so they may be dissuaded from even trying at all,” Ms. Sohnen said.

Just how difficult it is for applicants from Mexico (or any other country) to visit the United States is challenging to address, because the State Department does not publish the number of applications it receives for non-immigrant visas, only the number of visas ultimately issued. Thus there is no clear number available to the public of how many applicants were denied.

Back home in the U.S., I now find “comprehensive immigration reform” splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers. They are full of discussions about tighter border controls, crackdowns on employers, paths to citizenship, bipartisan consensus, the DREAM Act, the Latino vote and changing demographics. I read all of it closely to try and understand exactly if and how my host family would be affected by these proposed changes.

It seems to me that the conversation is leaving out those individuals from Mexico who are not looking to come to the United States to work, to study or to live. To the extent that they are included in the national discussion, it’s merely to point out symptoms of a problem we need to address with those who overstay their visas. With all the talk of enhanced security on the borders, I can’t help but remember how easily I was able to cross their border to explore and to learn. I remember how American music frequently blasts on their radios and how my host mom’s favorite television shows were “Bones” and “NCIS” (translated into Spanish). American culture is alive and present in Mexico, but the vast majority of Mexicans that could theoretically visit America will likely never have that chance.

I would think that with our country’s economic woes, there must be something we can do to address our fundamental immigration problems while still encouraging tourism from Mexican citizens. The system as it stands now discourages it.

To be sure, many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas. I recognize this is an enormous and expensive problem. But I find it hard to believe that the only way we can sufficiently limit the number of undocumented workers in the United States is by making it extremely hard for most Mexicans to visit. We certainly have the minds and ingenuity to create a system that ensures those who travel on tourist visas return to their host country, and that eases the process of applying for and obtaining tourist visas.

I am not suggesting Mexico be added now to the Visa Waiver Program but that we do look more closely at the hurdles to travel that many well-intentioned Mexicans face. Include them in the national immigration reform discussion. The increased tourism would economically benefit our country, as would affording others the same freedoms to travel that we so often take for granted.

I’d like to one day welcome into my home my host parents — two hard-working individuals who have no desire to move to America.