In-Depth: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress in response to reports detailing horrific conditions for migrant children and families in government care. This bill would allow members of Congress immediate access to federal facilities, including those under contract or lease, and give members of Congress an avenue to report their findings:
“Members of Congress are the eyes and ears of the American people. Their role is to ensure Americans’ tax dollars and will is being executed properly. In its second reintroduction, The Restoring Oversight for Members of Congress Act would provide members of Congress immediate access to these federal facilities at our border, including those under contract, and allow them to report their findings afterwards. Given Congress’ duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch, it’s critical that we can conduct inspections to ensure children already suffering trauma are, at a minimum, safe and taken care of. Though we have yet to change our immigration policies, we have a responsibility to ensure that these conditions are at least humane. No administration should have the power to declare federal, taxpayer-funded facilities off-limits to oversight.”
Senate sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) says this bill is needed to ensure accountability for the Trump administration’s lack of care for migrants in detention facilities:
“Trump and his administration have shown they can’t be trusted to protect and provide for migrant children’s basic needs. We’re talking soap, toothbrushes, food, medical care. The Trump administration is afraid of letting Congress and the American people see the full extent of its cruelty in these detention facilities, so we must force its hand.”
In a joint statement when they introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Rep. Castro and Sen. Wyden said:
“Under the Trump Administration’s zero-humanity immigration policy migrant children have been taken from their parents and locked away in federal facilities under spartan conditions. These facilities house vulnerable people, including minors, and it’s critical that Congress ensures the conditions are humane and appropriate, even if the policy is not. Members of Congress are the eyes and ears of the American people. Their role is to ensure Americans’ tax dollars and will is being executed properly. The Restoring Oversight for Members of Congress Act would provide members of Congress immediate access to these federal facilities, including those under contract, and allow them to report their findings afterwards. Given Congress’ Constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch, it’s critical that we can conduct inspections to ensure children already suffering trauma are, at a minimum, safe and treated humanely. No administration should have the power to declare federal, taxpayer-funded facilities off-limits to oversight.”
The Trump administration argues that its policy of detaining unauthorized immigrants — which has led to children’s separation from parents in fenced-in enclosures that some have referred to as “cages” — is a deterrent to illegal immigration. In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to defend the administration’s “zero tolerance policy.” Sessions said, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing, and it protects the weak.”
This bill was endorsed by Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), Demand Progress, and Immigration Hub last Congress. In the current Congress, the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, Florida has expressed support for this bill.
This bill doesn’t have any House cosponsors in the current Congress. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), has two Senate cosponsors (one Democrat and one Independent).
Last Congress, this bill had 31 Democratic House cosponsors and didn’t receive a committee vote. The Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Wyden, had three Senate cosponsors (two Democrats and one Independent) and also didn’t receive a committee vote.
Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) has introduced a bill, the Public Oversight of Detention Centers (POD) Act, which would allow members of Congress to gain access to immigrant detention facilities within 48 hours of their request.
Of Note: Congressional visits to ICE detention centers have historically taken weeks to organize, and some legislators, including Rep. Crow, then-Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) have been denied access altogether. In February 2019, Rep. Crow was denied access to an adult immigration detention facility in Aurora, Colorado after he asked for a walkthrough to learn more about the health care resources available to address a chickenpox outbreak among the facility’s 1,500-plus detainees as well as reported mumps cases. Ultimately, Rep. Crow was only given a tour of the facility three weeks after his initial visit request.
Lawmakers are already allowed to drop in on detention facilities for unaccompanied migrant children. This requirement was established through legislation that Congress passed in 2018.
In addition to Congressional oversight, there is also a little-known policy, called “stakeholder procedures,” established in 2011, allowing the public to monitor conditions in ICE detention centers. This “Access Directive” outlines a process by which individuals or groups can tour ICE facilities if they send a request to the overseeing ICE field officer, along with several proposed dates, at least two weeks in advance. However, in March 2017, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), told Rewire News that ICE had rejected six of its requests for access over a two-month period. It, along with the ACLU and over 400 groups and individuals, wrote a letter to ICE in March 2017 urging the agency to ensure public access to and oversight of immigrant detention.
In response to CIVIC’s letter, ICE’s Acting Director, Thomas Homan, said the agency “appreciates the work of CIVIC and other community-based visitation programs” and has a “strong desire” to continue to facilitate their access to immigration detention facilities.
Nationally, there are over 200 immigrant detention facilities, with a record-high 49,000 beds. Allegations of overcrowding, poor conditions, human rights violations, inadequate health services, usage of slave labor and abuse of solitary confinement have been levied against many of these facilities by advocates, detainees, and human rights watchdog groups.
Currently, inspections of ICE jails are conducted by a private company, Nakamoto Group, as well as ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), neither of which investigates all of the country’s ICE facilities in any given year. On average, Nakamoto inspects an average of 100 facilities each year and ODO inspected an average of 28 facilities in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. In addition to these inspections, there’s supposed to be a “continuous” monitoring program, but that also doesn’t occur at every ICE facility.
In June 2018, the DHS OIG released a report calling ICE detention centers profoundly dangerous places with few safeguards to protect detainees’ rights. The report further detailed how ICE inspections and monitoring of immigrant detention facilities fail on multiple levels.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / wildpixel)