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Where’s your pen, Gov. Brown?

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People gather outside the Department of Homeland Security offices in San Francisco on Aug. 22 to protest the alleged abuse of immigrant detainees and to encourage the passage of the Dignity Not Dentention Act. (Courtesy Raquel Ortega)
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On Aug. 22, one of those deceptively cold San Francisco mornings, a group of people gathered outside 630 Sansome St. (the offices of the Department of Homeland Security) to protest the alleged abuse and negligence recorded against immigrant detainees at California’s detention facilites and to call for the passage of the Dignity Not Detection Act.

Authored by California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, the Dignity Not Detention Act takes a “stand against the mass incarceration of immigrants in detention facilities” and addresses three critical concerns.

First, private companies are contracted to run immigration detention centers in California (and other states). Private organizations are accountable to their shareholders and not to the people of California. Many of these facilities do not provide access to their records. This is possible because they are private entities and can claim exemption from the California’s Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act. So oversight is limited.

Second, immigrants held in these centers include crime victim visa applicants (U-Visas), victims of human trafficking (T-Visas) and juveniles. Many of them have suffered severe physical, emotional and mental trauma in their home countries or in their journeys to the United States. Victims often require sensitivity and perhaps additional medical and psychological attention. At a for-profit facility, the bottom line becomes the most imperative aspect of care and investing resources to treat ailments becomes a bottom line drag.

Third, because immigrant detention falls under the purview of civil jurisdiction, immigrants are not given access to legal counsel or legal channels for the redressal of grievances.

The Dignity Not Detention Act would prohibit the City of San Francisco, county of San Francisco or any law enforcement entity in The City (as well as in the state) from contracting with a private corporation for immigration detention services.

The Dignity Not Detention Act will require facilities to operate humanely, providing detainees access to legal counsel and adequate medical care. It will prohibit detainees from being put into segregated housing units because of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. And this act will allow detainees who have been harmed by a detention facility or its operators to bring civil action for damages and relief against that operator or facility.

There have been several documented reports of immigrant deaths while in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, most recently of Igor Zyazin, of Russia, in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, for failing to provide adequate medical care. In the five years since it opened, there have been three cases of death at the GEO-run Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino due to “medical negligence.”

Carlos Hidalgo, who has children who are U.S. citizens, was detained at Adelanto for more than a year. Hidalgo is quoted on Sen. Lara’s website as saying: “In immigration detention, you feel helpless. You feel impotent to the system. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. Psychologically, you start deteriorating.” Petra Albrecht, from Germany, is on record as saying that she was put into segregation at the various detention facilities she was sent to and was “abused and tortured” to the extent that she needed a wheelchair.

Detainees have complained about sexual abuse and assault, lack of medical, dental and mental health care, solitary confinement for more than 14 days, lack of recreational access for at least four hours a day, and lack of access to legal research materials, according to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement.

The California State Association of Committees opposes the Dignity Not Detention Act. In a letter to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, DeAnn Baker, the executive director for legislative affairs, brings into focus San Francisco’s vulnerable pulse point: the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle.

“Currently, the City and County of San Francisco and San Francisco [ex] Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi are being sued by Kate Steinle’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit, for releasing Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez from jail without notifying federal immigration officials,” Baker wrote. “While Mr. Lopez-Sanchez was a seven-time convicted felon, there was no active warrant for him. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released him stating that they had no ‘legal basis’ to hold him.”

Baker makes the case that due to “overcrowding” in San Francisco’s jails, immigrant offenders are released on the street, increasing the potential for litigation.

That argument seems somewhat incomplete to me. If there was no real “legal basis” to hold him, Lopez-Sanchez would not have been eligible for detention, and the case would then have no bearing on whether private contractors should be running immigration detention centers.

The other point that CSAC raised was the increased potential for litigation. Yes, SB 1289 would confer the right to sue detention facilities or their operators if they are harmed, and this is a right every individual has in this country. It’s a check on the monopoly of a corporation to ride roughshod over individual rights.

As Grisel Ruiz, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, puts it, “Immigrants in removal proceedings are particularly vulnerable — they rarely have attorneys or anyone else to advocate for them.”

The bill was passed by both houses of the California Legislature on Aug. 23 and enrolled on Sept. 2. Where’s your pen, Gov. Brown?

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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