Internal DHS and ICE immigration detention practices are broken

June 23, 2019

This month’s damning report from the agency’s own inspector general, which rebuked ICE’s detention practices, including placing immigrants in solitary confinement, is an accountability decoy. In fact, the report only scratches the surface of their unlawful actions.

Our organization, Government Accountability Project, represents numerous whistleblowers within the DHS who have made multiple disclosures to the agency’s inspector general.

These whistleblowers saw egregious violations of laws, rules and regulations in practices that substantially threaten immigrants’ health and safety and reported those wrongdoings inside the system — to the people with the authority to investigate and address misconduct.

One whistleblower we represent, Ellen Gallagher, was a senior policy analyst at the Department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). After reading dozens of ICE segregation reports, she discovered that ICE regularly used solitary confinement practices against mentally ill and medically vulnerable detainees in violation of federal detention standards.

The abuses she discovered were graphic — detainees were denied proper medical care and attention; others were stripped bare and placed in “suicide smocks” in complete isolation, with some detainees choosing to not disclose suicidal ideation out of fear that they would be subjected to such treatment; and mentally-ill detainees were put in solitary confinement and de-scheduled from appearing before immigration judges despite having been determined to have a credible fear of returning to their home country. These abuses were systemic, not just one-time occurrences, with examples spanning from over 200 adult detention sites.

Gallagher first alerted her own colleagues of these abuses, since she understood the civil rights office’s mandate included both reviewing individual cases of misconduct as well as recommending policy changes to protect the rights and interests of immigrants in detention. When they declined to investigate, Gallagher brought the evidence of the misuse of solitary confinement at ICE detention facilities to the inspector general.

The inspector general promised to investigate whether ICE facilities use segregation properly and follow applicable detention standards. However, in two reports prior to the one issued last week, the watchdog failed to release any meaningful, site-wide data or conclusions regarding the use and impact of segregation for civil detainees in immigration custody. Even in this most recent report, the Inspector General only spot-checked four detention centers, none of which were mentioned in Gallagher’s whistleblowing disclosures. The report barely looked at mentally ill detainees. The recommendations suggested that the field offices that oversee the specific detention centers they investigated “ensure compliance” with existing federal detention standards, completely failing to address these same problems that exist across the entire ICE detention system.

Two other clients of ours, Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson, are medical and mental health subject matter experts working for the Department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. They too tried to raise concerns about risks of harm to immigrants, especially children, to both CRCL and the Inspector General’s investigative team. Their concerns have also fallen on deaf ears.

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