Obama’s ‘posh’ jails for illegal immigrants anger GOP at Judiciary hearing

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Republicans reamed the Obama administration Wednesday for its continuous efforts to reform the nation's immigration detention system, saying new standards for health care and recreation have made imprisonment a "holiday" for criminals.

In the opening minutes of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration detention, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, announced, "ICE has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants. While we would all like to be upgraded, we don’t have the luxury of billing the American taxpayers or making federal law enforcement agents our concierge.”

The new standards, which were made public in February, guarantee detained immigrants access to medical and dental care, and provide them with recreation amenities including television, sports facilities and exercise equipment — among other things. Earlier this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unveiled a model detention center in Texas that more closely resembles a school than a prison. Immigrants will be allowed to roam freely throughout the facility, enjoying a gymnasium, a library, computers with Internet access and outdoor sports fields.

ICE officials hammered out the policy changes in response to heavy criticism from human rights organizations, which call detention facilities inhumane.

“I would like to be clear that no member is against the humane treatment of detainees,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif. But, he said, the interests of illegal immigrants should not be championed over those of American taxpayers.

Immigration detention reform should focus on fast-tracking deportation, he said, not rolling out "the welcome mat at a posh detention facility."

Immigrant advocates were bristling long before the hearing, which was officially titled "Holiday on ICE," came to order. In an editorial published in The New York Times, notable author and Haitian immigrant Edwidge Danticat called the hearing's title "facetious" and "flippant."

"Clearly, these new standards are far from luxurious," she wrote. "They simply help protect basic human rights."

Since 2003, more than 110 people have died in immigration detention, Danticat wrote. Her uncle, who came to Haiti seeking political asylum in 2004, was among them.

"His medications for high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate were taken away, and when he fell ill during a hearing, a Krome nurse accused him of faking his illness," she wrote. "When he was finally transported, in leg chains, to the prison ward of a nearby hospital, it was already too late. He died the next day."

A New York University report released last week outlined grim conditions at at least one of the nation's detention centers. Immigrants being detained in Essex County, N.J., get just 1,000 to 1,500 calories in nutrition daily and are forced to sleep fully clothed in freezing spaces, according to the report. Some detainees "haven't seen the sun for over two years." A 2010 investigation conducted by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union revealed evidence that U.S. officials have taken measures to cover up substandard care and mistreatment.

"We’re essentially seeing ongoing complaints about inadequate medical attention, poor food quality and mistreatment by guards and staff," Alina Das, the law professor who helps run NYU’s immigrant-rights clinic, told The Star-Ledger.

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