The US immigrant-detention population has surged in the past decade, resulting in a lack of due process that has driven some detainees to attempt suicide, according to an Amnesty International report.
In the last decade the number of immigrants in detention has tripled from 10,000 in 1996 to over 30,000 in 2008. Those detained include asylum seekers, survivors of torture and human trafficking, lawful permanent US residents and the parents of US citizen children.
"It became the rule that people would be detained," said Sarnata Reynolds, policy director for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA.
International human rights standards require that detention should be only used in exceptional circumstances, must be justified in each case and must be subjected to judicial review.
However, US law provides that all individuals apprehended at the border "shall be detained" pending deportation proceedings. A senior immigration officer decides whether they may be released while their cases are processed. In practice many will remain for months, and in some cases for years, without any review by a judicial body.
Immigrants in the USA can also be held in mandatory detention, pending deportation, if they are convicted of certain crimes, including minor, non-violent offences. US citizens and long-term permanent residents have been incorrectly subjected to mandatory detention under these provisions, and have spent months or years behind bars before being able to prove that they are not deportable.
In 2007, legal-service providers discovered as many as 322 people in detention with potential claims for US citizenship
Amnesty International has recommended that detention become a last resort and that Congress pass legislation that would ensure immigrants have individual hearings to determine the need for detention. Amnesty International has also called on the US government to ensure humane treatment and enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities housing immigration detainees.
The Amnesty International report highlights individual detainees’ cases, including that of a 34-year-old Mexican mother of three. She said she was arrested at home for failure to appear in court on a petty theft offense. After almost three weeks in detention, she tried to hang herself. When the immigration officers found her, they handcuffed and transferred her to another cell.
Another man, a Buddhist monk, fled Tibet where he had been tortured for his religious and political beliefs. He arrived in New York, only to be placed in detention for 10 months. In 2007, he received permission to remain in the US.