By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM

( – Women’s rights advocates and immigrant families are raising awareness about the importance of new immigration detention standards in response to a federal lawmaker characterizing them as a “holiday.”

To address the crisis of inhumane treatment of immigrants (including preventable deaths and sexual assaults) in the country’s civil detention facilities over the last decade, the government created Performance-Based National Detention Standards in 2008.

In 2011, the Obama Administration updated the standards to improve the system. And igniting outrage among women and immigrants’ rights advocates, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, opposed the standards, calling them a “hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants.”


On March 28, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing titled, “Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards” to examine the new regulations. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The basic premise of it is that our nation’s immigration detention facilities are so luxurious that being there is like being in a four-star hotel. This is the product of Congressman Lamar Smith and his war on immigrants, which he’s now bringing to the war on women,” said Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice Education Fund, which works towards comprehensive immigration reform. She spoke during a teleconference held the same day as Rep. Smith’s hearing.

The standards cover basic issues, Ms. Tramonte said. For instance, people with cancer should not be denied access to screenings and life-saving treatments; victims of sexual assault in detention should feel safe reporting the abuse and receiving medical treatment they need and detained immigrants should be allowed to meet with their lawyers in private without worrying the government will listen in.

According to Ms. Tramonte, although media, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies have probed the serious flaws in the nation’s immigration detention centers, the hearing’s title “Holiday on ICE” shows a callous disregard for the issues women and activists highlighted on the call. “It sounds like an Ice-Capade show,” she said, referring to the traveling ice skating entertainment show.

A Jamaican woman, identified for her privacy and safety only as “M.C.,” detailed her sordid rape by an ICE agent during transport. On September 21, 2007, the officer allegedly removed her handcuffs asked, “Are you wearing federal underwear,” M.C. recounted. She replied, “Yes,” but the officer allegedly proceeded, taking her to his house, she said.

In the end, she reported tearfully, pausing at times to gain her composure, the officer had raped her for 15-20 minutes. “I remember looking at the top of his head and thinking how I wanted to hit him and push him away but I couldn’t. He had a gun. I truly believed that if I fought or tried to run away, he would have killed me,” M.C. said.

She talks of a deep sense of frustration and outrage towards the department and the detention center, which she feels should have known she would be victimized in custody.

“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. It was so terrible, there were times I’d want to end my life,” M.C. Said.

According to the ACLU, just implementing the standards could affect the lives of many hundreds of thousands of men, women and children locked away in U.S. Immigration detention centers.

Louise Melling, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the ACLU Center for Liberty, said of the nearly 400,000 people are locked up by ICE annually, 10 percent of are women. The women have fled their homelands, and have sought refuge as survivors of torture, persecution, domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender-based violence. They’re pregnant women, nursing mothers, sole caregivers of U.S. citizen children and women supporting their families.

“For many of these women, the fear of deportation, separation from their families is just the beginning of their suffering once they’re in the immigration detention system,” Ms. Melling said.

She continued, in ICE lock up, women are assaulted, abused, denied medical treatment, and in some cases die in custody. The need for standards and medical care standards is dire.

But the update, the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards standards, reflect an essential step to improve medical care for women in immigration detention. The most basic care it provides for includes routine pelvic and breast exams, pap smears, STD screenings and mammograms, for instance, advocates say.

“The standards are comparable to but not entirely on par with the standards enforced by the Bureau of Prisons. What they also do is take a step to move ICE into compliance with the Constitution … These standards are really working to create a past injustice,” Ms. Melling said.

Despite that, women and immigrants’ rights advocates say, right wing politicians and media are attempting to place the issue in their latest culture war battle.

According to Rep. Smith, the preface to the standards indicate they were drafted with input from ICE personnel across the U.S. but it lacked input from the union that represents ICE detention officers, among others.

Rep. Smith is also displeased, according to his March 28 press release, that the new standards “expand a complaint process against ICE officers and facilities.”

Advocates say the standards could prevent past injustices from reoccurring. Cheryl Little, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Americans for Immigrant Justice, which has represented persons in immigration detention since 1996, said the group has documented many counts of abuse, including the lack of medical care.

One of clients, a cancer survivor, spent 15 months in ICE custody without receiving proper medical care and the group had to file a lawsuit to obtain her release. Another was a picture of health when he arrived at an ICE facility center in 2008.

“He agonized for a week, begging for medical attention. A treatable condition turned into a life-threatening emergency that kept Mr. Bahia in the hospital for 11 days. He almost died from a ruptured appendix at Florida’s Glades Detention Facility … where 21-year-old Valery Joseph had died a month earlier,” Ms. Little said.

“The medical standards that we are talking about today are about treating everyone who is in the United States’ care with respect, with dignity and with humanity, regardless of where they come from,” Ms. Melling said.