Dear Mr. President,

On the official day of thanks, I reflected–as I force myself to do each day–on the many things I have to be thankful for and how lucky I am, especially to be an immigrant in this country who is not just legal but not in a detention facility across the country.

The addition of the latter part to my “blessings mantra” came after reading a report from Detention Watch Network, which documented widespread abuse at detention centers across the United States. The report documents what they term “the appalling conditions in the detention centers that house immigrants.”

The U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency currently incarcerates more than 400,000 immigrants every year in 33,400 prison and jail beds. Immigrants in ICE custody are technically in civil detention, meaning that they are locked up to ensure that they appear at their hearings and comply with the court’s decision, not because of any crime.

The DNN report found that Individuals at Tri-County Detention Center in Illinois report paying as much as $2 a minute to speak with their families and lawyers, a problem that is prevalent at ICE facilities across the country.

At Pinal County Jail in Arizona, complaints regarding sanitation include receiving food on dirty trays, worms found in food, bugs and worms found in the faucets, receiving dirty laundry and being crowded in with 10 other men in one cell and only one toilet. At Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, an HIV-positive woman was not receiving any medication until a local NGO intervened. A 39-year-old immigrant died at a detention center in Georgia in March 2009 of a treatable heart infection. An investigation conducted following his death revealed that the nursing staff failed to refer him for timely medical treatment and the facility physician failed to follow internal oversight procedures.

In the Houston Processing Center in Texas, a man with emotional issues was placed in solitary confinement for months at a time, a practice which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has deemed torture. At Theo Lacy Detention Center in California and at Baker County, Fla., and Hudson County, N.J., jails, people reported being insulted, cursed and laughed at and having their clothes and other possessions thrown on the floor by corrections officers.

Women and men, especially those who identify as LGBT, also reportedly endure physical and sexual abuse by guards and staff as well as by other detained people. Furthermore, the report found that people of color, who constitute the majority of the detained population, endure racial slurs and discriminatory treatment by prison staff.

Asylum seekers who come to the U.S. in search of protection from persecution are also kept behind bars, denied the medical care they need to recover from physical and emotional trauma and are subjected to more of the same misery that prompted them to flee their home countries in the first place, DWN found.

It is time that you, Mr. President, understand that the safety, dignity and well-being of immigrants held in detention also has to be a priority as the dialogue turns to immigration reform. People in detention are suffering, and as you pause to celebrate with your family, think about the many families with a member locked up in detention centers or ripped away from their children because of petty crimes. But in this your second term, you have the power to bring about change that will uplift immigrants instead of locking them up.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez recently summed it up, saying, “Together, we can fight for justice for immigrants. Together, we can re-establish the rule of law. Together, we can again make immigration one of the greatest and most defining aspects of American society.”


Felicia Persaud

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