Letter No. 30: Immigration reform now! (36101)

Imagine this: Your immigrant relative who has never committed a crime but is seeking asylum or refugee status in the United States is being held in an immigration detention center and shackled.

That’s right, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles like a mass murderer during transportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to their court proceedings.

Uelian De Abadi-Peixoto, a 35-year-old asylum applicant and domestic violence survivor from Brazil, is currently experiencing this first-hand. De Abadi has been placed in metal hand and leg restraints for travel to and participation in immigration court proceedings on about five occasions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC).

For every immigration court hearing in San Francisco since November 2010, De Abadi has appeared in full shackles-ankle and wrist restraints and a belly chain-even though she has no history of violence or disruption in court or in custody. In the event that she has to testify, she will not be able to raise her hand to be sworn in.

The shackles used during her transportation and court proceedings aggravate a previous injury and current medical condition she suffers from, and intensifies the memories of being bound and raped by her abusive husband and his brother.

This nightmare is happening here in the United States under the Obama administration to immigrants who are held in detention for a variety of reasons, including that they can’t raise the money to post bond, that ICE or court officials believe they pose a flight risk, that their detention is mandatory under federal immigration law or that they are not eligible for bond because they have committed a crime of “moral turpitude,” such as passing a bad check.

As attorney Audrey Daniel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights tells it, “Thousands of immigration detainees, including the elderly and individuals with physical or mental disabilities, are being unnecessarily subjected to hours in shackles.”

But hopefully, soon it will be no more! Kudos to the ACLU for taking this issue on and suing both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the ICE.

The ACLU-NC, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati filed a class action suit against the DHS and ICE on Aug. 15 on behalf of adult immigration detainees, all of whom appear in immigration court shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles regardless of their history or capacity for disruption.

The lawsuit was filed in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco by four individuals on behalf of a class of people who are or will be detained for their immigration proceedings in San Francisco, but the case has national implications.

The suit calls for replacement of ICE’s blanket policy on shackling detainees in San Francisco immigration court with a case-by-case policy that would protect due process rights while maintaining ICE’s ability to use restraints as needed for individuals who pose a true security threat.

“According to our government’s own most recent statistics, about 95 percent of immigration detainees had no violent criminal convictions, and the majority of detainees fall into ICE’s own ‘low custody’ category, meaning they have a low propensity for violence,” said Sin Yen Ling, an attorney who represents many detained immigrants on behalf of the Asian Law Caucus.

“But in San Francisco Immigration Court, every one of these people has to appear and testify in front of a judge and family members in hard metal chains, even those seeking asylum due to torture in their home countries. American courts are supposed to dispense justice, not trauma.”

“Freedom from physical restraint during court proceedings has been recognized since the 18th century as a fundamental right. But you don’t have to be a scholar to know that shackling a woman in belly chains and leg irons for passing a bad check is unnecessary and inhumane,” added Julia Harumi Mass, staff attorney for the ACLU-NC.

ICE runs the largest civil detention program and supervised release program in the country, with more than 31,000 immigrants in detention at more than 300 facilities throughout the nation. In theory, ICE places a high priority on the removal of dangerous persons with criminal convictions but in practice, as of October 2009, only 51 percent of the detained immigrants had felony convictions. Of them, only 11 percent had committed violent crimes.

The number of people in immigration custody has also grown exponentially in recent years. From 2006 to 2009, the number of non-criminal versus criminal detainees grew by 64 percent, to 383,524 people from 233,417.

The writer is founder of NewsAmericasNow, CaribPR Wire and Hard Beat Communications.