Co-published by International Business Times
They do not want to leave and they don’t have anywhere to go. The country where they were born refuses to accept them, and until just over 14 months ago, the country where they have spent at least the last 20 years had not tried to send them back to a place most of them do not remember.
But Donald Trump campaigned on leaving no immigrant behind, and since he became president, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun detaining refugees from Vietnam who have been long-time residents of the United States. And ICE has begun these detentions despite the fact it has nowhere to send them.
Since Trump’s inauguration, ICE has arrested at least 45 Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. before 1995, when the U.S. and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations, said Phi Nguyen, litigation director for the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Nguyen’s organization filed a lawsuit in February challenging these detentions. Those detained have criminal convictions—often for minor offenses—and existing deportation orders but, according to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Washington and Hanoi, they cannot be sent back.
Those people are now being held in ICE detention indefinitely, Nguyen said, “stuck in this weird immigration purgatory where you don’t have legal status, but you’re not deportable.” She said her organization is working to get them out while the courts consider the group’s lawsuit.
“I have spoken to some people who have been there over a year now,” Nguyen added. The vast majority came as children, some airlifted out by the U.S. government itself after American troops were withdrawn in 1973. Many others escaped by boat in the years that followed. Some are the mixed-race children of U.S. soldiers, Amerasians who were widely discriminated against by a society that dismissed them as “children of the dust” — products of fraternizing with the enemy — often growing up on the streets.
Most of those facing deportation are now married, have children of their own and were, “up until recently, pretty secure in their future,” Nguyen said.
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, head of immigration policy at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington DC, said her group did not receive many reports about Vietnamese refugees being detained before Trump took office. But since then, there has been a flood.
“It just seems like they’re trying to deport as many people as possible, regardless of what the MOU says,” Dizon Mariategue said. And with improved U.S.-Vietnam relations, that MOU may not be long for this world. The U.S. and Vietnam have been growing closer in recent years. Last year Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the Trump White House, and Trump later visited Hanoi in November, where the two governments agreed to deepen their security cooperation.
The former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, quit his job over the issue last fall. In a piece for the April edition of The Foreign Service Journal, published by the association that represents career foreign service employees, Osius recounted how he “was asked to press the government in Hanoi to receive from the United States more than 8,000 people, most of whom had fled South Vietnam on boats and through the jungle in the years immediately following the war.”
Osius wrote that he found the policy “repulsive,” fearing some of those returned would be subject to human rights abuses. “I voiced my objections, was instructed to remain silent, and decided there was an ethical line that I could not cross if I wished to retain my integrity,” he wrote.
ICE does not keep track of when Vietnamese immigrants it seeks to remove first arrived, said agency spokesperson Brendan Raedy. But it is deporting more of them. In fiscal year 2017, “ICE removed 71 Vietnamese nationals to Vietnam,” Raedy said, twice the number that was removed the year before. “As of December 2017,” he added, “there were 8,600 Vietnamese nationals residing in the United States who are subject to a final order of removal, of whom 7,821 have criminal convictions.”
Most of those Vietnamese nationals are not currently detained, but the prolonged detention of any who came before 1995 is a new development. Another change Dizon Mariategue says is that her group is no longer in the business of highlighting detainees’ individual cases for campaigns aimed at swaying ICE’s bosses in Washington. Now the thinking is that highlighting those cases will only serve to expedite their removal.
But the stage for refugees who arrived before 1995 to be deported to Vietnam had been set before Trump, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, shortly after Washington and Hanoi normalized relations.
In 1996, under Clinton, a Democrat, a Republican-controlled Congress made green-card holders automatically deportable if convicted of what is termed an “aggravated felony” under immigration law. Those offenses range from rape and murder to what would normally be misdemeanor petty theft or minor drug possession.
Under immigration law, an “aggravated” felony need not be aggravated or a felony in the jurisdiction where it was committed. All that is required is that Congress has labeled it an “aggravated felony” regardless of how trivial or non-violent the offense. And if Congress adds an offense to the list of “aggravated felonies,” that addition applies retroactively to convictions before the offense was added.
According to Human Rights Watch, the two relevant bills passed in 1996—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—contravene international law. Under the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Human Rights Watch notes, no one can be deported to countries where they face potential persecution unless they have been convicted of a “particularly serious crime” and still pose “a danger to the community.”
The 1996 laws changed that provision by allowing refugees to be automatically deported to places where their lives may be in danger, based on as little a drug offense — a change that legislators applied retroactively.
“It basically eliminates the ability for immigration judges to hear your case,” Dizon Mariategue said. “It is a very black-and-white policy: Sentence everyone to deportation no matter what their background or the circumstances are.”
Now, a judge cannot even hear about potential mitigating circumstances, such as having fled as a kid on a boat from a homeland devastated by the U.S. military and having grown up in poverty in a strange country. For those convicted of an “aggravated felony,” there is not even a hearing to air those circumstances. And once removed, the only way to ever come back is to obtain the consent of the U.S. attorney general.
Clinton signed those 1996 bills into law even though he and Congress were aware of the pain that would be caused. In a signing statement, Clinton accused Congress of making “a number of major, ill-advised changes in our immigration laws having nothing to do with fighting terrorism,” noting that lawmakers had chosen to “eliminate most remedial relief for long-term legal residents.” He pledged his administration would work to change that.
Twenty-two years later, no change has come, at least not for the better.
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Homeland Security Kicks the Ladder from Under Immigrants Seeking Green Cards
Co-published by American Prospect
“Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes,” DHS tells would-be citizens. Then it lists the ways a proposed agency rule could devastate the health care of 5.5 million of them.
Millions of people could go hungry or forego medical treatment for fear they could jeopardize their chances or those of family members to legalize their status in the U.S.
Co-published by American Prospect
Immigrants who use Medi-Cal, food stamps, housing assistance or Medicare prescription drug subsidies could be barred from obtaining green cards or visa extensions under a proposed rule the Department of Homeland Security published in the Federal Register October 10. Currently only those who use cash assistance or who require long-term institutional care at government expense are barred on public charge grounds.
Immigrant rights advocates, health care providers and local governments predict devastating results, especially in California and other states with large immigrant populations: Millions of people would go hungry or forego medical treatment for fear they could jeopardize their chances or those of family members to legalize their status in the United States. The newly uninsured would seek care at hospital emergency rooms, likely waiting until their conditions are painful and costly to treat. Surprisingly the Department of Homeland Security echoes these predictions, but still contends the rule change is necessary.
“It’s just unconscionable that a family would have to choose between food, health care or a green card for their children.”
“DHS seeks to better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States…do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations,” the government notes in its proposal. “Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes.”
The California Primary Care Association, the trade group for the state’s community health clinics, predicts that between 20 and 60 percent of non-citizens could disenroll from public programs, including Medi-Cal, delivering a potential body blow to California’s health care safety net. The forecast is based on what happened during a similar scare 22 years ago, when Congress approved welfare and immigration reform laws that, for the first time, specified that those who received federal public benefits could be excluded from the country on public charge grounds. (The wide gap in the percentage forecast reflects varying rates of disenrollment from different programs and different immigration statuses of individuals, legal permanent residents, visa holders and refugees.) The Clinton administration initiatives didn’t define federal public benefits, but later instructed immigration officials to bar only those who used cash welfare benefits or those who required government-paid institutionalization for long-term care.
One policy analyst says the rule change is an “end run around Congress” that would favor immigration of wealthier individuals and those with advanced degrees or job skills.
“It’s just unconscionable that a family would have to choose between food, health care or a green card for their children,” says Louise McCarthy, CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.
The rule would instruct immigration officers to give positive weight to green card applicants with incomes of more than $62,000 for a family of four.
National Immigration Law Center policy analyst Jackie Vimo says the rule change is an “end run around Congress” that would favor immigration of wealthier individuals and those with advanced degrees or job skills.
Immigration officers would have broad discretion to exclude children, the elderly and non-English speakers in determining who would become a public charge.
“President Trump tried to change our immigration system, which has been a family-based system. This is trying to pass the RAISE Act through the back door,” Vimo said, referring to the 2017 Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, which would cut legal immigration in half and limit legal immigrants’ abilities to petition for legal status for family members.
The administration’s proposal would exclude those who have received 15 percent or more of the federal poverty level in food stamps or cash assistance, or $1,821 for a single person annually, as well as those who have been on Medicaid or who have received housing assistance for 12 consecutive months in a three-year period from becoming legal permanent residents. It wouldn’t penalize individuals who received benefits before the rule took effect.
Under the rule change, immigration officers would also have broad discretion to exclude children, the elderly and people who don’t speak English in determining the likelihood that an individual would become a public charge.
DHS predicts dire health consequences if its own proposal takes effect.
DHS hasn’t specifically proposed to exclude immigrants whose children are insured under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which offers low-cost care to children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, but it has asked for the public to comment on whether it should do so.
DHS estimates that the new public charge rule would cause some 5.5 million people nationwide to either disenroll from Medicaid (as the program is known outside of California) or fail to sign up for fear of immigration consequences. (The DHS estimate is based on a percentage of the foreign-born population who sought to legalize their status between 2012 and 2017.) The government would save some $1.5 billion, but DHS also predicts dire health consequences if its proposal takes effect, writing that it would lead to:
•“Worse health outcomes, including increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence;
• Increased use of emergency rooms and emergent care as a method of primary health care due to delayed treatment;
• Increased prevalence of communicable diseases, including among members of the U.S. citizen population who are not vaccinated;
• Increases in uncompensated care in which a treatment or service is not paid for by an insurer or patient;
• Increased rates of poverty and housing instability; and
• Reduced productivity and educational attainment.”
The DHS press office did not respond to an email query or to phone calls asking how it weighed these negative consequences against the potential benefits of the rule change.
The new rule is so stringent that if American citizens were subject to it, one in three would be excluded, Vimo said. It’s also so complicated that among its costs to society, DHS listed an opportunity cost of eight to 10 hours for immigration lawyers representing immigrant clients and others who would seek to understand it.
Thus, it’s likely that few people have read the fine print, either of the final proposal or of two earlier versions that were leaked to the public last spring.
But fear of applying for benefits is already palpable among immigrant patients at Eisner Health, a network of community health centers that serve low-income patients in Southern California, say staff members. Katie Tell, Eisner’s Vice President for Development and Communications, noted that patients sometimes make untenable choices for fear of immigration consequences.
“Do they enroll or play it safe and not get the care they need? If we have less people in Medi-Cal, it could destabilize community clinics,” she said.
But Eisner Health staff report that patients are increasingly fearful of applying for benefits. They say that several women who received Medi-Cal to pay for prenatal care and delivery have recently called insisting on reimbursing the clinic out of pocket for their services. Other patients have refused to sign up for Medi-Cal for their children, who are eligible for the program.
Today, health care providers predict similar outcomes, which they say would reverse some of the progress California has made in tightening its health care safety net. The Affordable Care Act included a major Medi-Cal expansion that added nearly four million people to its rolls and cut the uninsured rate in half, from 17 percent to 8.5 percent between 2013 and 2015. Many previously uninsured Californians who, in the past, had used costly emergency services, were able to access more cost-effective primary and preventive care. Clinics like Eisner expanded and increased their services, but Carmela Castellano Garcia, CEO of the California Primary Care Association, says disenrollment from Medi-Cal could mean some clinics would have to cut back on programs.
The Department of Homeland Security is legally required to consider public comments for 60 days in drafting its final rule, however the FCC ignored that requirement last year in scrapping net neutrality rules — claiming that it only considered comments that introduced new facts or made legal arguments. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has announced its intention to change the way immigration judges apply the public charge rule, in order to align with the DHS proposal.
Copyright Capital & Main
Fire and ICE Video: Adelanto — Rendered Invisible
In April of 2017, Capital & Main visited the Adelanto Detention Facility to report on substandard medical care that was costing some immigrant detainees their health – and in a few cases, their lives. Following a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security detailing the harsh conditions that continue at Adelanto, we are republishing our original story and this accompanying video.
The Adelanto Detention Facility, operated by a private, for-profit prison company for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is California’s largest immigrant detention center. In 2017, two detainees died within weeks of each other there.
Fire and ICE: Detention Deaths in the High Desert
In April of 2017, a report from Capital & Main exposed substandard medical care at the Adelanto Detention Facility that was costing some immigrant detainees their health – and in a few cases, their lives. Following a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security detailing the harsh conditions that continue at Adelanto, we are republishing our original story.
Late last March, Osmar Gonzalez Gadba, a 32-year old Nicaraguan immigrant, was found hanging by a bedsheet at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Adelanto Detention Facility. About two weeks later, ICE reported that a second detainee, Sergio Alonso Lopez, 55, of Mexico, had died in a nearby hospital of internal bleeding – the fifth detainee death since Adelanto opened in August 2011, and the sixth fatality to occur in ICE custody so far this year. The California facility is run by the country’s number two for-profit prison company, the Florida-based Geo Group.
Now, a 41-year old woman detained at Adelanto tells Capital & Main that she has lost full use of her right arm and leg after suffering stroke-like symptoms, and alleges that her treatment has been poor.
The Geo Group’s stock has soared on news that the Trump administration plans to greatly expand the ICE detention system, as has that of Core Civic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), the U.S.’s largest for-profit prison company. Human rights groups, however, are concerned about the already poor quality of health care for detainees across the country and worry that expansion will make it worse. After the 2015 death of 44-year-old Raul Ernesto Morales of colon cancer, the Adelanto facility was pressured to improve care. But the company that Geo hired to do so has a poor record in jails, prisons and detention facilities across the U.S. What is more, a report scheduled for release in early May by Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) will show that in ICE detention, health-care services nationwide are still substandard, and perhaps dangerous.
Last year Human Rights Watch examined 18 in-custody deaths in facilities across the country that occurred between 2012 and 2015, and concluded that substandard care likely contributed to the death of Morales and six others.
Morales, who was from El Salvador, had been in ICE custody for four years at the time of his death, three of them at an Orange County jail, with his last year at Adelanto. An ICE detainee death review showed he had complained of gastrointestinal symptoms for two years before his cancer was diagnosed. ICE investigators noted that three days before Morales’ death, guards shackled and transported him to a hospital emergency room in a passenger car instead of an ambulance, after an outside doctor who’d been treating him said he was “bleeding out.” The investigators called the move “highly risky.”
Investigators also noted that half the nursing staff at Adelanto was inexperienced and untrained in conducting clinical assessments of patients. Off-site medical appointments were at times canceled or delayed because lab understaffing meant test results were sometimes unavailable when expected.
ICE investigators didn’t determine that poor care contributed to Morales’s death. Last year, however, a review of the ICE investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that it probably did.
“Had Mr. Morales’ gastrointestinal symptoms been evaluated much sooner as was clinically indicated, it is possible that the malignancy from which Mr. Morales died might have been caught at a time when it was still treatable,” the report noted, quoting a medical consultant who analyzed the records.
Human Rights Watch researcher Clara Long said her group’s new report will show that health care in immigration detention has not improved. The study reviews medical records of detainees who died, as well as those who have survived but who said they had received poor care.
Long added that Trump administration plans to build more detention facilities will mean “more deaths due to subpar care and more serious medical issues undetected and untreated.”
In late April, ICE Los Angeles field director David Marin led reporters on a tour of the Adelanto lockup. It sprawls across 108,000 square feet of high desert 40 miles north of San Bernardino. It is the state’s largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, with some 1,700 people from 70 countries living behind its bars. It’s run under a contract arrangement with the city of Adelanto.
Inside the walls, Marin showed off medical-examination and X-ray suites, a psychiatric observation area, and a dental suite. Carlos Deveza, health services administrator for Correct Care Solutions, the Tennessee-based for-profit that provides health care at Adelanto, said the facility is fully staffed with a physician and mental health personnel. Marin told Capital & Main that CCS came on board in 2016 when ICE made it clear to Geo that its health-care services must improve in the aftermath of Morales’ death. But ICE declined to provide the agency’s most recent Adelanto oversight reports that would show whether its own inspectors have found that health care, especially in the areas it criticized, had gotten better.
The company is among the largest for-profit providers of prison medical and mental health care in the country, with 11,000 employees in prisons, jails, ICE detention centers and community corrections facilities in 38 states. Like other for-profit prison health-care providers, it faces a deluge of lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths and denial of care. Currently more than 260 such claims are pending against CCS alone in more than 30 states.
For example, attorneys for the family of 38-year-old Jennifer Lobato alleged in a 2015 complaint that she died a preventable death of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance as she withdrew from methadone in a Colorado jail cell, and received no medical attention from CCS staff. In California, Armando Vargas, a jail inmate with a long history of mental illness and suicide attempts, hanged himself in the Mariposa County Jail, allegedly after being denied his medication while in CCS care at the jail. His attorneys further allege that no one attempted to administer CPR when they found him hanging in his cell last August. And, last year, the Nation magazine reported that the parents of Nestor Garay sued CCS and the government for wrongful death after their son suffered a stroke in a Texas prison and later died. They alleged their son was forced to wait five hours before being transported to the hospital after his stroke.
In Adelanto, detainee Norma Gutierrez shuffles slightly, dragging her right leg as she enters a tiny interview room on the women’s side of the massive facility. The right side of her mouth droops and her right arm seems weak and trembles.
“I look in the mirror and I’m not the same,” she says tearfully.
She recalls the time she awakened on the floor of her dorm, after collapsing into the arms of her dorm-mates last January. She couldn’t move her mouth or her eyes, and she felt stunned and disoriented.
She was taken to a San Bernardino hospital where, she said, she had blood tests, an MRI and X-rays, but claimed hospital nurses refused to answer any questions about her condition, simply telling her she was fine. The next night, she said suffered another collapse. Gutierrez claims her roommates reported that nurses called her episode a “freak show,” while a guard with the rank of lieutenant also reportedly made inappropriate comments about Gutierrez.
This time, she says, she wasn’t hospitalized. Instead, she was taken in handcuffs to a cold room with a bed, a toilet and two blankets. Gutierrez says she remained alone there for four days. The only medical attention she received was from a nurse who took her pulse and brought her previously prescribed medication for depression and anxiety. Later, a psychologist told her that her attack had been psychosomatic. She was returned to the dorm where she suffered a third episode. This time, she says, she didn’t bother to report her symptoms.
One detainee defended the care CCS has provided recently. He told Capital & Main that in the past there were long delays before detainees could get appointments with nurses and doctors. It’s better now, he said.
But Gutierrez says she’s no longer requesting care at Adelanto — she’ll wait to see a doctor on the outside.
Geo Group vice-president Pablo Paez declined to comment on the issues Gutierrez raised and responded to questions by Capital & Main with a statement expressing confidence in the care CCS offers:
“GEO provides high quality, around the clock medical care at Adelanto in partnership with its healthcare subcontractor Correct Care Solutions. Medical care at Adelanto and all other GEO ICE facilities is provided pursuant to mandated, performance based national detention standards set by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and also adheres to guidelines and standards set by leading third-party accreditation entities including the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.”
Likewise, CCS spokesman Jim Cheney declined to answer questions, both about Gonzalez’s case and the company’s policies and practices, and instead provided a statement identical to Geo’s.
David Marin, the ICE field director, said he and his colleagues are proud of the facility and the care it offers. In an email, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that her agency will review the Adelanto deaths, and cited the thousands of medical, mental health and dental visits conducted at the facility, and the fact that ICE covers the cost of treatment in the community when it’s necessary and approved.
Denver-based civil rights attorney Dan Weiss, however, said CCS makes it a practice to deny care, understaff its facilities and assign medical staff to duties beyond the scope of their professional licenses.
“Among civil rights lawyers, everybody knows what they do — they kill people for a living,” Weiss said, pointing to cases like that of Jennifer Lobato. “But outside that narrow slice of America, people don’t know. People assume they’re providing a valuable service. People don’t realize how dangerous it is to go to jail and get sick.”
Health care at Adelanto and other ICE facilities, however, may draw greater scrutiny in coming months as the state legislature considers a bill by State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).
Lara’s Senate Bill 29, which passed the senate judiciary committee in late March, would require detention centers to meet the latest ICE standards for medical care and other conditions of confinement, and give detainees the right to sue in state court. The bill would also prohibit California cities like Adelanto from acting as intermediaries between ICE and for-profit prison providers.
“Immigrants bear the brunt of a business where profit often trumps care,” Lara said as he urged judiciary committee members to move SB 29 to the appropriations committee, where it currently awaits a hearing.
Human Rights Watch’s Clara Long said Lara’s bill could help ensure that detainees in California get humane treatment. “It might prompt ICE to change their ways,” she said.
In Washington, DC, Mexican Embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday said his government also plans to investigate Sergio Lopez’s death. While problems in ICE detention have existed for years, he said, now any abuses might be a result of the “perception that anything goes because of the current [political] climate.”
How Immigration Activists Got ICE Out of a County Jail
ICE contended that forcing Contra Costa County to divest from cooperation in immigrant detention would harm the detainees — an argument similar to those heard during the fight for divestment from apartheid in South Africa.
ICE has facilities in hundreds of county jails around the U.S., building a dependency among counties on money paid for housing detainees.
Bay Area immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists felt they’d won an important victory July 10. At a news conference, Sheriff David Livingston, flanked by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, announced that his department was ending its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigration detainees in Richmond at the West County Detention Facility, one of the county’s four jails.
Immediately, the organizations that had put pressure for years on the county over its cooperation with ICE demanded the release of the detainees, urging authorities not to transfer them to another location. For the next two months, until the immigrant facility inside the jail was closed, detainees’ families and their supporters mobilized to get legal help, and raise the bond money needed to bail people out of detention. In the end, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, and freed 21 of about 175 detainees held inside the center. The rest were transferred.
A final vigil held September 1, after the ICE facility closed, was a bittersweet moment. For seven years, monthly vigils had been held under the portico next to the center’s doors. After the sheriff was forced to abandon the ICE contract, however, activists and families were forced to gather next to a new chain-link fence, in the traffic lane of the highway outside the detention center’s parking lot.
The vigils at Richmond’s West County Detention Facility went on longer than protests at any other county jail.
Several former detainees, some freed just days before, came with their families to celebrate. Other families, however, faced the reality that their detained loved ones were now far away, in centers ranging from Adelanto in San Bernardino County to Arizona. Alexa Lopez’s father, Raul, was taken to a facility in Colorado.
“We can’t see him anymore,” said his wife Dianeth.
At the end of an hour of songs, prayers and speeches, the participants wrote messages on white ribbons to those still detained, and tied them onto the chain-link fence.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha accused those who had pressured the county of being responsible for separating families. In a statement when the contract was canceled he said, “Instead of being housed close to family members or local attorneys, ICE may have to depend on its national system of detention bed space to place those detainees in locations farther away, reducing the opportunities for in-person family visitation and attorney coordination.” Immigrant rights activists called that a threat and tried to free as many detainees as they could.
Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and the central organizer of the vigils, said the faith groups involved had to examine their conscience. “The transfer of many detainees instead of their release was hard to swallow at first, and many families felt helpless,” she said. “We asked ourselves if we were responsible for their transfer, as ICE accused us. But the families reminded us that ICE moves detainees all the time, and often they don’t know where their own family members are.”
The ICE argument, that forcing the county to divest from cooperation in detention would harm the detainees, is similar to arguments heard during the fight for divestment from apartheid in South Africa. Corporations investing in South Africa at the time said divestment would harm those people who divestment proponents were trying to support.
Opposing divestment, however, was then and is now also a matter of economic self-interest. ICE was paying Contra Costa County $3 million per year to house immigrant detainees. Yet the sheriff didn’t hire any new employees with the money, according to Lee. Instead his department relied on overtime by the existing workforce. In a petition a year ago detainees complained they were being held in cells 23 hours a day, that there were no toilets in the cells, and that free time for calling relatives or taking showers was often canceled. One detainee asked to be deported in preference to continued detention.
“County jails are the worst place to be an immigrant detainee, even worse than many of the huge privately operated detention centers,” Lee charges. “They have far fewer services for people, and aren’t built for long-term detention. Of course, what does that say about the conditions for the non-immigrant people imprisoned there?”
ICE has facilities located in hundreds of county jails around the country, building a dependency among counties on the money paid for housing detainees. The city councils of Hoboken and Jersey City protested when Hudson County, New Jersey, supervisors (all Democrats) voted last July to renew its ICE detention contract. “The county and cities shouldn’t be in the business of profiting off human misery,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop told the New York Times. Sacramento was receiving $6.6 million annually from ICE before it canceled its contract in June. Other contracts have also been canceled in Santa Ana, Virginia and Texas.
The vigils at the West County Detention Facility went on longer than protests at any other county jail. “They created a monthly platform,” Lee explains, “where detainee families could come and ask for support. A consistent, regular event provided a place where people who weren’t necessarily activists could participate. People brought their children, made their own signs, and came to play music. Often one person from a congregation would come at first, and then go back and recruit others. From the beginning, we were committed to the long haul.”
Lee relied on faith congregations as a base, and each month appealed to one of them to take responsibility for the vigil. As the vigils gained momentum and before they were successful, Lee explained why congregations were morally obligated to be involved: “Since the detention center is in our community, we can’t look away. We have to own it, to scrutinize and examine what goes on inside, and be involved with the detainees and their families. Ultimately, we have to force our local authorities to divest and get out of the business of detention, and stop collaborating and making money from it. It’s not impossible. It’s something that people can do to end the detention system.”
Breaking News: Study Shows Spike in Federal Immigration Prosecutions While White-Collar Cases Plunge
A spike in immigration prosecutions comes only a few months after Justice Department data showed that the Trump administration has overseen a 20-year low in white-collar criminal prosecutions.
The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown appears to be crowding out other law enforcement priorities, according to a new analysis of Justice Department data.
A study released Monday by Syracuse University researchers showed that federal immigration prosecutions in June comprised 94 percent of all cases in the five U.S. Attorney districts along the southwest border. That is up from 86 percent in March. The report noted that federal officials in those border areas are moving forward with more prosecutions that are being referred by the Customs and Border Protection. In June, prosecutors moved forward with more than 11,000 of those cases – up 74 percent since March.
The spike in immigration prosecutions comes only a few months after Justice Department data showed that the Trump administration has overseen a 20-year low in white-collar criminal prosecutions. (See graph below.)
Syracuse researchers noted that the immigration focus appears to have come at the expense of prosecutions in other areas that U.S. Attorneys oversee.
“Federal prosecutors are responsible for enforcing a wide range of important federal laws – designed to combat narcotics trafficking and weapons offenses, battle those polluting air and water, counter corporate and other schemes to defraud the public, and much more,” they reported. “Unless crimes are suddenly less prevalent in the districts along the southwest border, the odds of being prosecuted for many federal offenses have declined.”
The simultaneous increase in immigration prosecutions and decline in white-collar crime prosecutions followed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ April 2018 announcement of a “zero-tolerance policy” and his demand that U.S. Attorneys focus on immigration.
“To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” Sessions declared. “To the department’s prosecutors, I urge you: Promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws—and as a result, our nation—are respected.”
Copyright Capital & Main
California Lawyers Strategize to Save Targeted Immigrants
Attorneys are gearing up for an intensification of a brutal, two-year fight to protect immigrant communities from an increasingly punitive federal government and its enforcement agencies.
Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, immigrant-rights attorneys have been waging a furious rearguard action to protect immigrants and would-be immigrants from a race-baiting federal administration. The last couple of months have been particularly ferocious.
In April, the Trump administration embraced a “zero tolerance” policy against those crossing the southern border without papers, a decision that resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents. It also slowed to a crawl the processing of asylum claims, locking out thousands of asylum seekers who have been left encamped in Mexico. It continued to largely shut U.S. doors to refugees – barely a few dozen Syrian refugees have been admitted into the U.S. in the first half of 2018. It continued the roll back of temporary protected status for more than half a million U.S. residents. And it has made clear it intends to lock legal immigrants out of a vast array of public services. In June, the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s Muslim travel ban, paving the way for the president to claim a national security prerogative for an array of anti-immigrant and discriminatory policies.
Here in California, attorneys across the state are gearing up for an intensification of an already brutal, two-year fight to protect immigrant communities from an increasingly punitive federal government and its enforcement agencies.
Capital & Main interviewed five leading immigrant-rights attorneys about their legal strategies and their predictions as to how these struggles will play out in California, and nationally — with California continuing to take the lead in efforts to resist the swing to xenophobia — over the coming months and years.
Capital & Main: Are we at the nadir now, nationally, vis-à-vis immigration policy?
Judy London, directing attorney for Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in Los Angeles: How low can our government get? It keeps getting lower than anyone thought. The meanness, the complete disregard for human rights is staggering. And the sophistication in trying to eliminate every remedy. The illegality of what they’re doing is stunning. Pre-Trump, we could advocate and reach out to human beings in government. We didn’t always prevail, but we prevailed a lot.
Kevin Johnson, Dean of the University of California, Davis Law School: We’re seeing a series of skirmishes on immigration that reveal some fundamental problems with our immigration laws. We still haven’t been able to come to a consensus about the kinds of compromises immigration reform might entail. It has to deal with the undocumented, with legal immigration and with some kind of enforcement devices – like workplace enforcement. I view all these things as part of the bigger problem and inability to agree on reform. We’re currently at a place where we can’t have rational and unemotional discussions about the hard issues.
C&M: Let’s not forget that many of the harsh government actions towards immigrants, especially those without documents arriving from Central America, began under President Obama. Is this simply more of the same or is it qualitatively different?
Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis, and co-counsel in Flores v. Sessions (a case that limited the amount of time children caught crossing the border could spend in detention facilities): We had predictability under Obama. Now there’s just a huge level of unpredictability. Obama was very hard on women and children arriving as asylum seekers. He had family separation; we had to litigate that. [But] we could kind of tell what his priorities were and develop strategies for the long term. Now, it’s a war on everything, and we never know when the next executive order will come down.
DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] was beneficial, but a limited recourse for young people. Trump’s tried to take that away. It’s still under heavy litigation. There’s also the travel ban. Immigration advocates are under a constant hyper-vigilance. I never felt like I was always responding to a massive crisis under Obama.
Judy London: Post-2014, there [has been] a great deal of success getting foundations to fund legal services for unaccompanied minors. Right now we represent 180 unaccompanied minors. And we’ve done a lot of work around protections for immigrant children, both in the DACA context and [with] asylum seekers amongst the unaccompanied children. They have more access to lawyers than families released from detention, who land in L.A. and literally are sleeping on Skid Row. We have a team of about 12 people serving unaccompanied minors released from shelters.
C&M: How do you respond to the huge crisis created not only by neglectful treatment of unaccompanied minors, but also by the recent deliberate wholesale separation of parents from children along the border?
Judy London: We’re going to see all kinds of different lawsuits. The scope is new — there’s going to be a lot of law created. It’s just a matter of time before a child dies in custody or is raped. There is absolutely no plan for how to manage detaining families and children. They have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very much the banality of evil. It is breathtaking.
C&M: There are so many fires to try to put out at the moment. What, for you, are the most urgent?
Holly Cooper: For children’s detention, in the short term we have a plan to defend the Flores settlement agreement. There’s been an executive order where Trump has told the government to modify it so he can create internment camps. [On June 21] they filed an ex parte motion to modify the agreement, even though the judge already decided the issue in 2015. It was upheld by the Ninth Circuit. Now they’re saying things have changed and the decision has led to more immigration. We don’t believe it has. They don’t provide any evidence. Most people are telling me they are migrating to protect their children from death. I’ve never met an immigrant who said, “I migrated with my child so I wouldn’t be detained.” To say someone from the highlands of Guatemala understands the Flores settlement is pretty far-fetched.
We have one girl, a client, [who] crossed the border, was traumatized when she was separated from her siblings, had a psychotic breakdown and was put in a residential psychiatric treatment center. At the time, she was 15. We’re even hearing reports there are kids as young as 6 this is happening to. We’ve had reports from the American Bar Association that the kids are so traumatized they’re being sedated. The government has told us they believe they have the authority to medicate children. We’re getting reports 300 parents can’t find their children in Texas. There may be more. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night. I can’t sleep.
Stephen Kang, detention attorney with the American Civil Liberties Immigrants’ Rights Project, based in San Francisco: There’s so much work to be done. There’s been such activity in this administration to roll back protections for immigrants and take an extreme enforcement-oriented position to immigration. We’re in year two, and it doesn’t look that much better than year one. My role as a litigator is mitigating this. I view it as part of a broader movement of folks mobilizing around immigrant-rights issues. It’s important to remember the Muslim ban was an executive decision. Congress still has the power to override it. I think there’s hope in the sense that there’s going to be individual and potentially systemic cases.
C&M: Does being in California, with a legislature and an attorney general sympathetic to immigrants, help you here?
Kevin Johnson: The attorney general of California understands that the more [federal] policies are at the edge, the more lawsuits you’re going to see. Over the next six months we’ll see challenges to the legality of indefinite detention; it’s an issue the Supreme Court recently bounced back to the Ninth Circuit, in Jennings v. Rodriguez. We’ll return to DACA rescission and a lot of fights over sanctuary legislation.
Holly Cooper: When you put the state in as well, that’s helpful. We can pool our ideas — the more brains behind something, the better your legal case is. That can have an effect on the judiciary. Judges are now very, very receptive to granting more creative forms of relief.
Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus’ Immigrant-Rights Program: One of the biggest challenges is the Justice Department lawsuit against California’s sanctuary policy — the series of laws putting limits on the way California cooperates with immigration officers.
C&M: Do you think the Justice Department challenge will succeed?
Anoop Prasad: It seems like it is going to get dismissed, [though] I’m sure they will appeal it up. It’s going to be a fairly slow process working its way up to the Supreme Court. We’re looking at three-plus years of litigation. It seems unlikely the district court judge will issue an injunction. So, the laws will stand. State and local jurisdictions have a lot of tools [with which] to push back on deportations – because the deportation machine has been built on state and local law enforcement.
The primary driver of internal deportations is local law enforcement. ICE is picking up most people because they have some contact with local law enforcement, and there is a very high level of electronic information sharing. California’s sanctuary policy says it’s up to them to say, ”No, we’re not going to cooperate.” Also, ICE’s detention system is spread over hundreds of facilities; very few are federally owned. California passed a law restricting the abilities of local sheriffs to rent future space to ICE. The goal is to make it as hard on ICE as possible, to push back. Long-term, we must think about chipping away at, and dismantling, this really awful system of deportation we’ve built over the past couple of decades.
C&M: Does the Supreme Court’s upholding of the travel ban, which uses national security arguments to bar visitors and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, open the door to broader bans? And if so, how will immigrant-rights attorneys in the state respond?
Kevin Johnson: This president likes to poke the bear every day on immigration. Just this weekend, he tweeted something about deporting people without hearings. It’s not legal — you can’t just summarily deport people. This is a time when lawyers can really make a difference – organizations, and the attorney general of California, who understand that the only way to deal with ignorance of the rule of law is to file lawsuits. Resort to the courts — bring lawsuits, get injunctions stopping illegal executive orders going into place. The next step will be to challenge them [national security executive orders] and show they are not legitimate. They are arbitrary and capricious, possibly motivated by discriminatory intent. We’re going to see things being slowed down. The public outrage with pictures of family separations really touched a chord and got this president to change his mind. The thing with this president, it took him three times to get the travel ban maybe right. It’s not like they’re technicians who take the time to get things right.
Anoop Prasad: It’s very important for lawyers to bear witness. In terms of the ban, there are challenges that are still available. It’s not a complete blank check he has. [But Trump] may try and abuse his power even more, and inch toward broader and broader bans. It’s quite possible he’ll attempt to add more countries to the ban. I’d assume he would be sued again.
Copyright Capital & Main
The Zombie Guest Worker Bill
Co-published by Fast Company
Republican immigration reform proposals may be dead, but Republican guest worker proposals live on.
On Wednesday, June 27, Republicans’ effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill went down in flames for the second time in a month, due to divisions within their own party. The Republican attempt to create a vast new guest worker program, however, has not ended.
That effort has been headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and is supported by many growers around the country, particularly on the West Coast. Originally Goodlatte introduced a stand-alone bill in 2017, the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Although that bill didn’t receive a vote in Congress, its main provisions were folded into a much larger, comprehensive bill Goodlatte tried to pass this spring, the Securing America’s Future Act. That bill failed by a vote of 193 to 231. Goodlatte then incorporated his guest worker provisions into the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (H.R. 6136). That fared even worse, 121 to 301.
Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan made a promise to Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA), a cosponsor of H.R. 6136, that he would hold a vote on agricultural worker issues before Congress adjourns at the end of July. After noting his minority votes for the two comprehensive immigration bills, and criticizing fellow Republicans for torpedoing them, Newhouse said in a statement, “the House has yet to address the crisis facing agriculture producers who cannot find enough workers, and I will not stop advocating for improvements to create a reliable legal guest-worker system. If our nation’s farmers are to continue providing food for America and the world, it is incumbent on Congress to act to address labor needs. I thank the Speaker for committing to hold a vote on this matter in July.”
Goodlatte’s guest worker bill has not yet been reintroduced, but when it is, the contents will undoubtedly be the same as in previous iterations. The latest guest worker provisions, in the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, are a window into what’s to come. Those provisions would create a massive new guest worker program, based on a new visa category called H-2C. This would take the place of the current H-2A visas, whose numbers have increased from 44,619 workers in U.S. fields in 2004 to 200,049 last year – a growth of about 450 percent in a little over a decade.
Critics of H-2A visas have two chief complaints: First, that workers in the program are exploited and often cheated, and second, that resident farm workers are displaced by growers who see H-2A workers as easier to control, and potentially less expensive. The proposed H-2C program would put the H-2A program on steroids, according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the Washington, DC-based farm worker advocacy group, Farmworker Justice.
“Over the last year,” Goldstein charges, “Rep. Goodlatte has made it his mission to create a massive new guest worker program of millions of captive workers who have even fewer labor rights than the current workers they would replace. His new guest worker program would convert an entire industry, from the farms and ranches to the packing houses and processing plants, from lettuce and grapes to dairy cows and poultry, into a labor force of exploitable temporary guest workers with virtually no workplace protections and with no opportunity to join the communities they are helping to feed.”
Goodlatte’s H-2C provisions might result in two million visas issued in the first two years, Farmworker Justice predicts, supplying contract labor to meatpacking and food processing, in addition to agriculture. Growers would be able to employ workers year round, and continuously from one year to the next. Current H-2A workers have to return to their home countries within a year, and can come back the following year if they receive a new contract. In either program, workers have the same vulnerability. If they fail to meet grower production demands, if they complain or organize, or if they simply get on the wrong side of a foreman, they can be fired, and must leave the country immediately.
Today each state has to calculate a wage rate for H-2A workers that, in theory, doesn’t undermine local farm worker wages. H-2C worker wages, however, would be set at 115 percent of the federal $7.50/hour minimum wage, or applicable state or local minimums. This locks in farm labor wages at the minimum-wage level, since local farm workers who demand more could be replaced with contract workers. Workers’ fear of replacement by H-2A labor is already affecting strawberry wages in Santa Maria, for instance.
Further, 10 percent of each H-2C worker’s wages would be withheld and could only be claimed by going to a U.S. embassy or consulate after returning to their country of origin. This was a feature of the old bracero program, which brought hundreds of thousands of guest workers to the U.S. from 1942 to 1965. Millions of dollars in withheld wages went missing, and braceros are still trying to recover them.
Today growers who want to recruit H-2A workers have to be certified by the Department of Labor and local unemployment offices, and show that they first tried to hire workers locally. In reality, this provision is not strongly enforced. Legal aid offices around the country have brought many cases on behalf of local workers who were either replaced or not hired to begin with. But the H-2C program would eliminate certification entirely. Growers could simply promise that they’d made a local hiring effort, and that they would obey labor laws.
The legal aid organizations that today file cases on behalf of guest workers would be barred from doing so. H-2C workers wouldn’t even be able to go to court against a grower, and would have to agree to private mandatory arbitration, a system that favors employers.
“These temporary workers have no other access to attorneys,” says Cynthia Rice, litigation director for California Rural Legal Assistance, which currently provides legal services to H-2A workers. “They are left intentionally unaware of the state and federal enforcement agencies who could take their complaints; and those agencies are severely understaffed. Prohibiting legal services from representing them will leave them unprotected and without anyone to recover the wages stolen from them. It will eliminate any real threat that unscrupulous employers will be held accountable, and will create an incentive to replace local workers, who have access to legal representation, with contract workers who do not.”
Growers would no longer be required to provide housing to guest workers, or provide transportation to the job location or back home when the work is done. Today, in many parts of the country, farm workers sleep in cars or under trees because of the lack of rural housing for migrants, and rents run high for what housing is available. H-2C workers arriving from another country would simply be thrown onto this already-inadequate and expensive housing market. Growers, meanwhile, would have no responsibility.
Goodlatte’s bills have all contained heightened enforcement provisions, especially a requirement that employers use the government’s E-Verify database to identify and fire workers without papers. In his H-2C program, Goodlatte would require undocumented workers to return to their home countries, and then apply to come back to their homes in the U.S. with H-2C visas. They would have to leave their families behind, however, since his bills specifically prohibit issuing visas for family members.
According to Farmworker Justice, “Rep. Goodlatte’s [H-2C program] would harm the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers employed in agriculture, fails to take steps to stabilize our nation’s experienced agricultural workforce, and instead creates a labor system that treats workers as commodities, with a revolving door of temporary exploitable workers.”
Many Republicans rejected their own party’s comprehensive bills because they oppose any legal status for Dreamers (young people granted temporary status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and want a bill that simply erects a border wall and increases enforcement. They might, however, be willing to give agribusiness a new guest worker program because it favors employers and denies workers a permanent legal status. During the June debates other Republicans, like Jeff Denham (R-CA), stated their public support for the Dreamers. But Denham, Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao are all San Joaquin Valley Republicans, and are either growers themselves, or come from communities where growers are politically very strong. Depending on a fractured Republican Party, therefore, would not be a sure way to avoid new guest worker programs.
At the same time, some conservative Democrats have historically voiced concern over agribusiness complaints of “labor shortages” and support for guest worker programs. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, in particular, has a long record of support for guest worker programs. In a 2009 speech, after introducing a guest worker bill, she said, “There is a farm emergency in this country, and most of it is caused by the absence of farm labor.” In 2013 she introduced a bill to help legalize undocumented farm workers, but which also proposed 336,000 guest worker visas.
While Republicans debated their comprehensive bills in June, progressive Democrats introduced a measure that provides a political alternative, the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. The proposal, authored by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to remove its discriminatory denial of overtime pay to agricultural workers, as well as end their exclusion from many minimum wage laws.
The bill would enact on a federal level the overtime provisions for farm workers that the California legislature passed this year, and has attracted many Democratic co-sponsors. While it stands no chance in the current Republican Congress, it may serve as a vehicle for pro-worker Democrats to call the question on their own colleagues: Is the road to improving the lives of farm workers the expansion of guest worker programs? Or is it providing the existing workforce with the same benefits enjoyed by most other workers, but denied to agricultural laborers by Congress 80 years ago?
Supreme Court Enforces Muslim Ban
This week the high court upheld the Trump administration’s travel ban that barred nearly all travelers from five mostly Muslim countries.
The Rise and Fall of an Immigration Detention Empire
Co-published by Newsweek
In a rush to create detention space, ICE has used opaque noncompetitive contracts called Intergovernmental Service Agreements to quickly bring beds online. A result has been the government’s inability to impose accountability standards on its sprawling immigrant-prison system.
Lawyer: Without private prison companies to warehouse thousands of immigrants, the federal government would face “an existential crisis.”
Co-published by Newsweek
In 2016 two immigrant detainees died after receiving care at facilities run by Emerald Correctional Management, a small Louisiana-based for-profit prison firm that at the time managed detention centers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A Russian asylum seeker, 46-year old Igor Zyazin, died of a heart attack several days after medical staff at Emerald’s San Luis Regional Detention Facility near Yuma, Arizona failed to adequately treat his severe chest pain. (See “Could an Undocumented Russian’s Life Have Been Saved?”) Olubunmi Joshua, 54, passed away after enduring eight months of medical errors and treatment delays at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas. (See “Anatomy of an ICE Death.”)
Emerald operated three ICE detention centers and a county jail before going out of business in early 2017. A Capital & Main investigation has found Emerald took in millions of government dollars as it skimped on essential expenses and damaged detainees, its own employees and, likely, taxpayers while ICE officials looked the other way. Like other for-profit prison companies, Emerald did business with ICE through secretive no-bid contracts using city governments as middlemen. Critics charge these contracts allow ICE to avoid legal responsibility—for deaths, injuries and sexual abuse that occur in detention—and play a role in the government’s see-no-evil approach to detention abuses. Since 2003, 183 detainees have died in ICE custody.
The federal government depends on profit-driven prison companies, including smaller firms like Emerald and corrections giants, such as CoreCivic and the Geo Group, to run its sprawling, 200-plus-prison detention network.
At Emerald, chaos reigned in the form of wage theft, poor medical care and crowded, unsanitary conditions. But ICE officials didn’t intervene, and it’s rare that it does at other facilities with serious problems. Between 2010 and 2017, just two of more than 200 detention centers received failing or “deficient” ratings from ICE inspectors.
The government’s failure to act against these facilities is partly the result of an insatiable hunger for lockups, said Mark Fleming, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center. Fleming contended that without the capacity to warehouse thousands of immigrants in facilities run by private prison companies, the government would face “an existential crisis.”
In a rush to create detention space, ICE has used opaque noncompetitive contracts called Intergovernmental Service Agreements to quickly bring beds online.
Now, as ICE seeks to expand family detention, it is likely to turn to IGSAs just as it did in 2014, when a wave of Central American children and families sought asylum in the U.S. It is reportedly planning to house families at the Fort Bliss Army base in Texas.
Critics argue that the sole purpose of some of these agreements is to avoid public protest and federal contracting rules that officially are aimed at ensuring transparency and avoiding overpayment by the government.
Immigration detention has expanded fivefold in the past 23 years, and with the Trump administration’s deportation surge, is growing larger.
But when Emerald got its start in 1997, the immigration detention system was just ramping up, and immigration detention contracts were a reliable source of business for the company – even as Emerald’s blunders were getting it ousted from county jails and knocked out of the running for state and local bids to operate jails and prisons nationwide.
The company drummed up some of its business by convincing small towns that jails and prisons would revive their dying economies.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Raywood J. LeMaire, one of the company’s four partners, learned firsthand as the five-term Vermilion Parish sheriff that there was money to be made in renting out jail beds to relieve state-prison overcrowding. Louisiana sheriffs like LeMaire generated money and power for their offices by housing state prisoners in their jails—often on the cheap and in poor conditions.
“As long as you didn’t feed them too well – grits and beans and cold bologna — you could make some money,” alleged Keith Nordyke, a Louisiana attorney who has long represented prisoners.
Asked about his partnership in Emerald, LeMaire, now in his late 70s, told Capital & Main, “I got out of it in January,” before refusing to talk further and hanging up the phone. Emerald’s other partners, Glenn Hebert, who also once worked for the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office, Clay Lee, W.T. Lee and former CEO Steve Afeman couldn’t be reached for comment. Hull Youngblood, an attorney who represented the company, didn’t return calls or answer emails.
Red flags had warned of trouble inside the company at least since 2003, when Emerald took over operations at the Rolling Plains Detention Center from another private firm.
“We saw things go to hell,” said Judy Morrell, who worked as a guard at Rolling Plains. Food for detainees was scarce, she alleged: “They would feed these people chicken bones and rice. If you don’t feed them, they’ve got to get money to buy [from] the commissary.” Morrell noted that Emerald profited from its in-prison store. “But you take people who didn’t have money, by God, they didn’t eat. They’d get to stealing and thieving.”
Now 70, Morrell said that when she started with Emerald she knew how prisons were supposed to run, having put in five years with the Texas prison system.
Morrell publicly complained about bad food and overcrowding, and quit her job in 2004. Federal officials were quoted in local media at the time as pledging to investigate her accusations. Three years later, a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of five members of a Palestinian family alleged they were the victims of sexual harassment, inadequate medical treatment, excessive use of solitary confinement and religious intolerance.
Over the years at Rolling Plains, Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspectors found repeated incidents of overcrowding, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, failure of medical staff to follow doctors’ orders, understaffing and failure of staff to perform regular checks on detainees. (ICE inspectors became more critical of the facility only in its later years, noting dozens of violations of its standards but, based on available inspection reports, never appears to have given Rolling Plains an overall deficient rating.) Cases of egregious neglect by Emerald have included:
— The 2016 suicide of a 77-year-old county inmate, Kennie Moore, who hanged himself using his boxer shorts as a noose.
— Emerald’s 2012 ousting, by a Louisiana sheriff, from the Riverbend Detention Center when his officers discovered a mother lode of drugs, cellphones and shanks during a shakedown.
— A lawsuit filed by workers at the West Texas Detention Facility against Emerald that alleged they were forced to work off the clock and weren’t paid for overtime; it was eventually settled out of court.
By 2016 the company had abandoned or been fired from more detention contracts than it maintained. As early as 2005, local and state governments in Florida, Vermont and Texas began to turn down the company’s bids to house prisoners or build facilities, citing its record. What’s more, the prison building boom was winding down as states tried to reduce their prison populations.
But ICE was Emerald’s ace in the hole. In 2016, Emerald finished construction on the $60 million Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas and began managing the 700-bed facility for the agency. Prairieland replaced Rolling Plains, whose location was too remote for adequate staffing and transportation of detainees, said one former ICE official.
Perhaps ICE could overlook the company’s checkered history because technically the federal agency wasn’t in business with Emerald. Emerald’s contract was not with the government, but rather with Alvarado, a town of 4,000 near Fort Worth, which has no actual role in running the detention center.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok didn’t address Capital & Main’s questions about whether it reviewed Emerald’s record before approving it as the operator of the Prairieland facility. He wrote in an email that new facilities contracts must meet the latest ICE standards, which require that all facilities “vigorously investigate all claims of abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by staff and other detainees.”
Like all Intergovernmental Service Agreements, the deal was made without the transparency that federal contracting rules dictate. ICE signed the agreement with Alvarado city officials, but city officials have no role in operating Prairieland.
“If you told me today that I’d have to start running the jail tomorrow, that wouldn’t work,” said Rick Holden, Alvarado’s city manager. “We’re not set up for that.” Holden is new on the job, having arrived in early May. Still, he said that after six weeks in office he hadn’t visited Prairieland.
“We don’t manage it from here. Nobody out there reports to me,” Holden said. “ICE is the agency that has the facility.”
If Holden would find it daunting to manage a detention center in his backyard, imagine the task that would face city officials in Eloy, Arizona. On paper, Eloy manages the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center, which is located more than 900 miles away in Dilley, Texas. But last February, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that Eloy doesn’t actually run the detention center, and didn’t even negotiate the agreement with ICE. Private prison operator CoreCivic did.
CoreCivic appears to have engineered the whole deal by asking the Eloy City Council to modify an existing ICE contract to also include the South Texas facility.
The town of Eloy was simply a middleman that was paid more than $400,000 annually by CoreCivic for the job, the inspector general concluded.
The IG noted that a lack of accountability is built into this particular contracting arrangement: “Because ICE’s agreement and legal relationship is with the city of Eloy, CCA’s [Core Civic’s] performance is effectively insulated from government scrutiny.”
The absurdity of a small city like Eloy overseeing a massive detention center in another state may be apparent, but the basics of its contract don’t differ much from a number of other IGSAs between ICE and local governments: Cities are routinely paid fees to act as middlemen between ICE and private companies.
Still, for the most part, the inspector general’s office limited its criticism to the Eloy agreement. But it did express its disapproval of ICE’s handling of IGSAs in general.
“ICE has no assurance that it executed detention center contracts in the best interest of the Federal Government, taxpayers, or detainees,” the report observed.
Eloy isn’t the only city supposedly overseeing detention operations from afar. In California, the city of Adelanto, in San Bernardino county, signed a 2014 agreement to provide guard services for a family detention center in New Mexico for a year. The services were provided by the for-profit prison firm, the GEO Group, not the city of Adelanto. The small San Joaquin Valley town of McFarland has a long-standing IGSA with ICE to operate the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, nearly 30 miles away.
The legitimate purpose of IGSAs is to allow government agencies to fill urgent needs by piggybacking onto services a local government already offers. In many cases, ICE does exactly that by signing an agreement with a local sheriff to rent beds in a county jail.
However, in other cases, ICE has used IGSAs only to rapidly bring detention facilities online by skirting federal contracting rules, which require an open bidding process that ensures transparency and competition.
About a third of all immigrant detainees are housed under these sort of agreements between ICE and cities.
Attorney Mark Fleming believes these are sham contracts, especially in cases where the city doesn’t even own the facility, much less operates it.
“These are fraudulent contracts to allow ICE to float money to a private company to avoid federal procurement laws,” Fleming said. “That’s a fraudulent contract because the locality has nothing to offer.”
For example, the Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County is operated under an IGSA between the city of Adelanto and ICE. The city, however, doesn’t run the detention center. The for-profit GEO Group does.
Fleming said that even in cases like Prairieland, where the city of Alvarado owns the facility, its operations are controlled by the for-profit subcontractor, now LaSalle Corrections.
“The actual performance is happening between the private contractor and ICE,” Fleming said. “Yet, because there’s a private subcontractor, there’s no direct accountability that ICE can assert.”
Because of these contract arrangements, it’s difficult to hold ICE or local governments responsible for detention center abuses, Fleming noted.
Alvarado City Manager Holden and Mayor Tom Durington declined to comment on their city’s contracts with Emerald and ICE because neither was in office when they were signed. City councilmembers Jacob Wheat and Shawn Goulding, who, from its inception, served on the board of the Prairielands Public Facilities Corporation (PPFC), the economic development entity that operated the facility, couldn’t be reached for comment.
One former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official, who asked not to be named in this story, disagreed with agency critics that IGSAs are a means by which ICE shirks its responsibility for detainee welfare, but he would not comment on whether IGSAs are legitimate contracts. However, he expressed concerns about the process of granting them.
“I think the way some of these contracts are done is troubling,” the former DHS official said. “It gives a lot of authority to bypass procurement rules and be selective about who benefits.”
Could Emerald have won a competitive bid under federal procurement standards? It officially obtained ICE approval to operate Prairieland after responding to a request for proposals issued by the city of Alvarado. It was the only firm to submit a bid, city officials said. Furthermore, the company appeared to have enjoyed an unusual advantage: In July 2011, CEO Steve Afeman, a Louisiana resident, was appointed by Alvarado city officials to serve as a governing board member of the PPFC. Afeman resigned his post the following month.
Then, less than a year after Prairieland was built, Emerald announced to each of the local governments with which it held contracts that it could no longer honor them, reportedly because of financial problems.
Emerald seems to have remained out of the detention business; at least two of its creditors have gone to Louisiana courts seeking to collect the company’s debts.
Note: This story was updated July 5.
This reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Copyright Capital & Main
Anatomy of an ICE Death
The medical care Olubunmi Joshua received for high blood pressure, anemia, anxiety, dental pain and other conditions was delayed, denied or mishandled by her detention center’s staff, ICE reported.
Olubunmi Joshua, a 54-year-old dual citizen of the United Kingdom and Nigeria, died at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas on October 24, 2016 after nearly nine months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The cause of her death was a heart condition caused by high blood pressure.
On the night of Joshua’s death, a mouse ran loose among the bunks in her housing unit, and a chase ensued. Rolling Plains, which was operated by the for-profit firm Emerald Correctional Management, had been repeatedly cited for health and safety violations, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it fell to the detainees to trap the rodent. Amid screams and laughter, Joshua killed the mouse, and asked for a plastic bag to deposit it. She shook the bag open, then suddenly fell backwards on the floor. She never regained consciousness.
Joshua, who was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Nigeria, came to the U.S. on a student visa when she was 22, and remained for 32 years. She lived in Texas and raised two children — a son who is a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, and a daughter who is a certified public accountant in Washington, DC.
Joshua entered detention after she was arrested in Flower Mound, Texas, about 30 miles from Dallas, for driving without a license.
The medical care Joshua received for high blood pressure, anemia, anxiety, dental pain and other conditions was delayed, denied or mishandled by Rolling Plains’ medical staff, according to the official ICE report on Joshua’s death, known as a Detainee Death Review (DDR).
Among its findings:
— Blood pressure checks, ordered daily on two occasions, were done only sporadically.
— Nurses failed to check for cardiac problems when Joshua’s blood pressure was high, as protocol dictates.
— A psychologist suggested Joshua be prescribed psychiatric meds for anxiety and depression. Rolling Plains didn’t offer anti-anxiety drugs, and a medical doctor decided she didn’t need them.
— Joshua was anemic, but wasn’t given iron supplements until two months after her diagnosis.
An ICE spokesman didn’t address specific questions about Joshua’s care; he wrote in a statement that the agency is committed to maintaining high standards “for the safety and well-being of the detained aliens.”
The ICE review also found the detention center lacked sufficient medical staff, and that nurses performed tasks for which they weren’t licensed or trained. The reviewers further discovered that the facility’s emergency medical kit was missing a defibrillator, delaying the proper emergency response when Joshua fell and lost consciousness on the night of her death.
However, ICE reviewers failed to identify another serious error in Joshua’s care, said Dr. Marc Stern, a physician and correctional health expert, who previously served as health services director for the Washington State Department of Corrections, and examined Joshua’s DDR.
Two months before her death, Joshua reported that her legs were swollen. “This is a new problem and makes me think her heart was starting to fail,” Stern said. “The swelling could have been caused by the heart’s inability to pump sufficiently. This is a critical moment.” But medical staff didn’t investigate whether cardiac issues caused the swelling. Instead, a nurse advised Joshua to elevate her legs – standard advice for swelling caused by standing for long periods of time, but potentially dangerous if swollen legs are the result of a bad heart. In that case, raising the legs would send additional fluid to the heart, placing greater strain on it.
Stern said the reviewers’ comments indicate they failed to understand the complexity of her case, and thus, to get to the core of what went wrong. “Someone else is likely to die at that facility because they never adequately figured out the problem. You can’t fix what you can’t identify.”
But known issues were also a factor in the inadequate care Joshua received. More than a decade before her death, the Rolling Plains facility failed two state inspections. Violations included failing to provide prescribed medicines. And, as recently as May, 2016 ICE inspectors discovered, along with other deficiencies in health care, that a Rolling Plains detainee whose blood pressure reading met American Heart Association guidelines for hypertensive crisis had not received medication. The inspectors reported they’d solved the problem; the detainee in question would receive medication and chronic care treatment.
Joshua, however, did not. Rolling Plains medical staff continued its on-again, off-again treatment of her high blood pressure and other health problems.
In the final 24 days of her life, she received only a little more than half of the blood pressure medication she was prescribed, ICE reviewers said. Several of Joshua’s requests for medical care went unanswered. The dental pain she’d reported in January had been ignored for eight months; the dentist she finally saw, four days before she passed away, discovered broken teeth and two gum abscesses. The pain and the infection, along with her poorly treated anemia, would have placed additional stress on Joshua’s heart, Dr. Stern said.
“It’s hard to tell,” said Stern, if the inadequate care Joshua received contributed to her death because of insufficient information in the ICE review.
“I see smoke. I don’t know if there’s fire. If I were the next of kin, I’d say I should try to get more information,” he said.
This reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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