Sen. Kamala Harris Calls to Stop Construction of Immigration Detention Facilities

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s attempts to address the nation’s immigration experience by incarcerating undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation just got a sharp rebuke from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who introduced the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act on May 15. The legislation would increase oversight of ICE detention facilities and halt the construction of immigration detention facilities.

The bill would also secure $45 million to increase oversight of those prisons. It would likewise require Homeland Security to cut its inmate population by half.

Harris also called out present and past presidential administrations for expanding the use of public and private prisons to detain immigrants. Over a 24-year period, the capacity for immigration detention has nearly sextupled from resources to accommodate under 7,000 detainees to about 40,000. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asked for $2.7 billion in the 2019 budget to increase immigration detention space and also put out a request for proposals to build new immigration prisons in Chicago; Detroit; St. Paul, Minn.; Salt Lake City; and south Texas.

“It is unconscionable to subject detainees to inhumane conditions that include cases of unchecked sexual abuse, outright medical negligence, lack of access to counsel, and in some cases, even death,” she said in a statement. (Such facilities have seen over 170 inmate deaths since 2003.) “It’s time to end the expansion of these facilities that divert these resources to address true public safety threats.”

Harris and Jayapal’s bill comes at a time of increased internal scrutiny of U.S. immigration policy, which has been stoked, in part, by the heated rhetoric of the Trump administration. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently visited the country’s southwestern border to advocate for a “zero tolerance” policy that pushed for criminal prosecutions of undocumented immigrants if caught crossing the border. He also indicated that those who were caught crossing the border would be forcibly separated from their children. The notion rankled Harris who, at a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, pressed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen regarding reports that federal agents had taken children from their parents in an effort to curtail illegal immigration.

“Secretary Nielsen, as I sit here today, I’m extremely concerned about the administration’s repeated attacks on some of the most vulnerable communities and, in particular, children and pregnant women as it relates to the work of DHS,” Harris said in the hearing. “[DHS] has separated 700 children from their parents at the border since October of 2017, including more than 100 children who are under the age of four. What purpose have you been given for separating parents from their children?”

Harris also queried Nielsen about a recent policy change enacted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that permits more immigrant pregnant women to be held in immigration detention facilities. While questioning Nielsen, Harris cited several federal reports of sexual absue, miscarriages and deaths of immigrants who were under federal custody.

“Our bill demands a higher accountability of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and a stop to detention expansion because our nation doesn’t need more violence and further militarization — what we need is comprehensive and humane reform and real accountability,” Jayapal said in a statement.