January 31, 2020
The Department of Homeland Security has a serious problem with transparency and accountability. This has always been the case. However, under the current president, there is not just a lack of accountability, but an utter disregard for the law when it comes to the standards guiding the detention of immigrants in our sprawling immigration detention network - the largest in the world. Indeed, after literally scores of reports documenting poor conditions in detention facilities, the administration has sought to weaken the standards that are supposed to guide departmental practice, not strengthen them.
Congress has not done much in this vacuum. At the peak of the crisis in border patrol detention facilities this summer, there were oversight hearings - though the only outcome was a Democratic leadership cave to administration’s demands for more funding, absent conditions (which McConnell was more than happy to scrub from the Senate’s emergency supplemental).
That said, Congress did make an effort during the appropriations process to gain more oversight over DHS practices. Specifically, the House inserted language into the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill requiring the creation of an Immigration Detention Ombudsman to hear complaints about conditions and abuse in DHS detention facilities (those run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] and Customs and Border Protection [CBP])
Per the legislation (p 467) the Immigration Detention Ombudsman is to:
Establish and administer an independent, neutral, and confidential process to receive, investigate, resolve, and provide redress, including referral for investigation to the Office of the Inspector General, referral to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for immigration relief, or any other action determined appropriate, for cases in which Department officers or other personnel, or contracted, subcontracted, or cooperating entity personnel, are found to have engaged in misconduct or violated the rights of individuals in immigration detention.
There are more specific provisions included in the bill, such as creating a complaint process for those detained, engaging in unannounced inspections of facilities, review of contract terms when there are violations, and to provide assistance to people who are victims of violations while in DHS facilities.
The only weakness of the plan (and there is ultimately little other choice here), is that the administration gets to set up the Ombudsman’s office.
And so, it should come as no surprise that Ken “Abolish the 14th amendment” Cucinelli, the current number two at DHS and unofficial public spokesbot for the president’s war on immigrants, has picked two anti-immigrant activists to set up the Ombudsman’s office. Specifically, KC
appointed Julie Kirchner, former leader of FAIR, a group that advocated for policies that restrict immigration, to help set up the office, according to the memo. Cuccinelli also tapped Tracy Short — a former top ICE official who signed memos during the Trump administration to stop the agency from granting reprieves for certain immigrants facing deportation — to also help figure out the plans for the office.
Buzzfeed, which was leaked the Cucinelli memo tapping Kirchner and Short, gathered some reactions to the appointments:
John Sandweg, former acting head of ICE during the Obama administration, said the move was not surprising, but potentially indicative of how the administration sees the role.
“These are the architects of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies,” he said. “It’s not a surprise they would try to build this thing in a way that makes it as less impactful as possible and seems inconsistent with the intent of Congress when they created the office. We have to wait to see what the end product is.” (Emphasis added).
It is not at all surprising that this White House would take a decent idea from Congress and turn it into a farce, by appointing the former head of a anti-immigrant hate group to be the protector of civil rights of people in immigrant detention. And, of course, will likely avoid the intended oversight of its actions in the process.
As a reminder of the necessity of better oversight, there are the stories of the six men who have died in ICE custody so far this fiscal year, and those of the four people who have died in border patrol custody. There is the fact that asylum seekers are risking their lives in a hunger strike that has passed the 90 day mark to protest their prolonged detention. There are efforts to re-start visitation programs, suspended by detention facilities who do not want people seeing what happens behind its walls, such as the one in Etowah Detention Center in Alabama. There is the fact that people are mobilizing to challenge ICE as it tries to subvert the will of communities in Texas and California by extending 15 and 10 year long contracts to private companies. In doing so, ICE is bypassing local and state efforts that sought to close these facilities after years of abuse.
And that is just this week...