Senators question DHS and ICE on abuse allegations against migrants

"The allegations of violence and brutality against vulnerable refugees seeking safety here in the United States are unlawful and disturbing.”

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Image Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Associated Press

In response to recent allegations accusing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of physically abusing migrants and asylum-seekers in order to coerce them to submit to their own deportation, Sen. Bernie Sanders and several Democratic Senators sent a letter demanding answers from the heads of these agencies.

On February 25, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote a letter requesting information about recent reports of physical abuse and asylum-seekers threatened with exposure to COVID-19 if they refused to submit to coerced deportation. Addressing DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson, the senators stated, “These alleged actions follow other disturbing accounts from asylum-seekers in ICE custody of mistreatment and abuse by personnel who apparently beat them into submitting to their own expulsion. The allegations of violence and brutality against vulnerable refugees seeking safety here in the United States are unlawful and disturbing.”

On January 20, Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske issued a memo directing senior officials at Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and ICE “to conduct a review of policies and practices concerning immigration enforcement” and begin an immediate 100-day moratorium on the deportation of noncitizens during the review period. However, the memo noted that this policy exempts noncitizens who “ha(ve) voluntarily agreed to waive any rights to remain in the United States, provided that he or she has been made fully aware of the consequences of waiver and has been given a meaningful opportunity to access counsel prior to signing the waiver.”

Less than two weeks after the memo was issued, several immigrant advocacy groups filed a civil rights complaint accusing ICE officers of coercing asylum-seekers into submitting to deportation through the use of excessive force. According to the affidavits of several migrants at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, ICE officers handcuffed them before choking and physically assaulting them in attempts to obtain their fingerprints onto deportation documents.

In recent reports, ICE officers at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana have allegedly threatened asylum-seekers with exposure to COVID-19 in an attempt to begin the deportation process. Similar conditions have recently been reported in other facilities overseen by the New Orleans ICE Field Office, including the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Adams County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, and the Jackson Parish Correctional Facility in Louisiana.

The senators wrote, “These violations were not unique to Pine Prairie and Etowah. Over the past two years, similarly horrific abuses and conditions were reported out of LaSalle (Jena), Winn, South Louisiana, Allen Parish, Jackson Parish, Catahoula, LaSalle (Olla), Richwood, River, Bossier, and Tallahatchie.”

They added, “Asylum-seekers should not have to choose between brutality at home or brutality while seeking asylum. They should have access to a safe, dignified, and lawful environment, including being protected from contracting COVID-19 during the global health emergency.”

The senators concluded by requesting documentation concerning the allegations of abuse and coercion against asylum-seekers. They questioned whether ICE has launched any previous investigations into the New Orleans ICE Field Office. The legislators also asked what actions DHS and ICE are taking to investigate these allegations and to ensure incidents like those alleged do not occur in the future.

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