For New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein, it all began with an email from an immigration lawyer. He had heard from his client in detention that another detainee had fallen ill and been left to languish in his cell, screaming in pain, until it was too late. When Bernstein inquired into the anonymous man’s death, government officials told her that no record of his death existed. Undeterred, Bernstein continued to inquire into the man’s fate, her investigation eventually uncovering a systematic and sometimes fatal lack of medical services in immigrant detention, the fastest growing form of incarceration in this country.
“She brought this issue out of the shadows, out of the darkness – and shone a light on it to the world,” said Brooklyn Law School Professor Elizabeth Schneider, director of the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship Program, in introducing Bernstein as the keynote speaker for the forum “Finding a Cure: Providing Adequate Healthcare to Immigrants in Detention,” held at the law school on March 5, 2010.
The forum, co-sponsored by Sparer Program, the Safe Harbor Project, and the Center for Health, Science and Public Policy, and organized by Professors Stacy Caplow, Karen Porter, and Dan Smulian, brought together medical experts, government officials, and community-based immigrant advocacy organizations to discuss the problem of providing healthcare to detained immigrants, its public policy implications, and possible solutions to improve an immigration system in distress.
Over 300,000 immigrants a year are detained in a labyrinthine scheme of county jails and privately contracted facilities operated by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although immigrant detention is civil detention, as opposed to criminal detention, there is, in practical terms, little distinction between the two. Deprived of the usual due process safeguards afforded to citizens, immigrant detainees are routinely shackled and suited in prison jumpsuits, have limited access to legal assistance, and often receive inadequate medical attention to their health needs.
Speakers at the symposium came from a broad array of perspectives, including Dora Schriro, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction; Allen Keller, Founder and Director of Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture; Phyllis Coven, Acting Director for the Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP), ICE; Jon Krohmer, Senior Medical Officer for the Office of Health Affairs of DHS; Brittney Nystrom, Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at the National Immigration Forum; Cheryl Little, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center; Tom Jawetz, Counsel to the U.S. House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee; David Shapiro, Counsel to the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice; and Andrea Black, Network Coordinator for the Detention Watch Network.
The forum’s first panel, “Our Challenge, Our Opportunity,” set forth guidelines for creating a civil detention system. The second panel, “Meeting the Medical Needs of Immigrants in Detention,” detailed the system’s failings in treating detainees who suffer from both chronic and acute health conditions. The third panel, “Administrative Challenge and Response,” described the government’s current efforts to revamp the system. The fourth panel, “Policy and Advocacy Initiatives,” offered an inside look at grassroots campaigns to fight abuses occurring in detention centers, such as the denial of lifesaving medical treatment. Finally, the fifth panel, “Finding a Cure: Mapping Solutions,” focused on possible next steps on the road to reform.
While all of the participants agreed that the immigrant detention system is deeply flawed, even “Kafkaesque” as one speaker called it, many also questioned whether immigrants needed to be detained at all. “We don’t just want to make detention nicer,” said Andrea Black of Detention Watch Network. “We want to transform the centers and look at who is being detained and why they’re being detained.”
At the end of her presentation, Bernstein showed photos of the man who died while in custody, his death unacknowledged by the government for years. He was Tanveer Ahmad, a longtime, tax-paying New York City cab driver. His name still appears on the tenant list of his apartment building along with those of many nationalities. It was a poignant reminder that we are, at heart, a nation of immigrants.
By Stephanie Staal ’10
View video of the forum.