SOMETIMES an outside critic can best hold up a mirror to the U.S. government. We hope that this will be the case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The commission is scrutinizing how immigrants are treated in U.S. detention. Its Oct. 12 hearing in Washington, D.C., framed the challenge. The image reflected thus far is shameful and appalling. Detainees suffer physical and sexual abuse, negligent medical care, and a lack of access to lawyers and family visits.
The biggest concerns are for pregnant women, unaccompanied children, and the seriously ill. Detention standards and a new law governing the treatment of minors have been in effect for more than four years, but these still aren't practiced as intended. Increased security and secrecy after Sept. 11 have made it more difficult than ever to hold immigration authorities accountable.
The commission does well to shine a light on the divide between what the U.S. government says, i.e., its good intentions, and what it actually practices. The huge increase in detentions in the last decade is all the more reason to worry. U.S. immigration authorities now hold 300,000 detainees a year, including 8,000 unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers who have been tortured.
Commissioners heard about poor medical care, which also was the subject of a recent congressional hearing. One horrible example was the death of the Rev. Joseph Dantica, a Haitian asylum seeker. He became ill at the Krome detention facility, received suspect care, and died at Jackson Memorial Hospital days later. His family wasn't even allowed to visit him.
Michelle Brane, of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, described detention centers for families that are based on a criminal model. Consider, for example, the T. Don Hutto facility in Texas, a former prison. There, she saw infants and toddlers dressed in prison garb. Children who cried or asked for more food were punished by being separated from their parents. Pregnant women went without prenatal care.
"There has been a disturbing lack of transparency on the part of the U.S. government with respect to detention facilities in general and particularly with the Hutto facility," Ms. Brane said. The facility denied entry to a special U.N. monitor scheduled to visit in May. What was there to hide?
Gary Mead, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, testified that his agency does "everything possible" to treat children and families in the most humane way possible.
The intent is good, but the results are abysmal. Immigration authorities should be held accountable for results, not good intentions.